Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Peas In A Pod: Spitzer and Blumenthal

Elliot Spitzer, the attorney General of New York, appears to have pulled it off. Most political prognosticators agree that he will be the next governor of the empire state.

It may well be a step down for him.

The attorneys general have managed to define their office as a safe haven outside of politics, and so they have little opposition; certainly they have little opposition in the media. Former attorney general Joe Lieberman reconfigured the office here in Connecticut from what used to be called in the colonial period “the king’s lawyer” to the more exalted position of “the people’s lawyer,” and the change in form necessarily involved changes in functions. There are no attorney general anti-bodies out there in the body politic. The power of the attorney general is hedged about only by sleepy-eyed judges who are busy engaged in their own bailiwicks.

Since many legislators are either sympathetic lawyers themselves or bureaucrats whose livelihood depends on an entrenched legal establishment, the barriers that form in republics to contain centers of power do not exist for the attorneys general. Normally, one would expect the attorney general to be kept in line by a wide-awake media concerned with aggregations of power. But attorneys general have been given a pass by the tribunes of the people for a whole series of unexamined reasons.

It’s possible that some journalists may be envious of the powers of the office. There is not a member of an editorial board or a publisher of a newspaper in this grand republic that would refuse the gift if the sugar plum fairy were to bestow on them the power of subpoena enjoyed by Spitzer and Dick Blumenthal. The attorney general dabbled in journalism as a student, and his all too frequent press releases bear the stretch marks of journalistic hyperventilation. Then too, there are the usual ego boosters inherent in the job: If you can shake down the captains of industry with threats of expensive lawsuits, intimidate the legislature into promulgating laws you favor and appear with your mug in the papers at least twice a week, pretty soon you begin to imagine that you are a very fine fellow.

Gore Vidal, a national treasure of wit and wisdom, offered a fitting description of the Kennedy clan descending on Washington D.C. after John F. Kennedy had been inaugurated: Vidal said it was like watching the mafia taking over a small northern Italian town.

Well now, here’s Thomas Donahue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, unloading on Spitzer and his army of lawyers: “He’s the investigator, the prosecutor, the judge and the executioner. Spitzer’s approach is to walk in and say, ‘Well, we’re going to make a deal, and you’re going to pay $600 million to the state, and you’re going to get rid of this person and that person, and if you don’t do it by tonight, then I’m going to indict the company.’ What does indict the company mean? It means they’re going to put you out of business. It’s the most egregious and unacceptable form of intimidation that we have seen in this country in modern times.”

It is a mystery to some why Spitzer would want to surrender such autocratic powers to become a mere governor?

Urged by powerbrokers in the Democrat Party to run for governor or senator--or anything, anything at all--Blumenthal consistently has resisted all efforts to dislodge him from his position as the people’s lawyer of Connecticut and its principal media darling. But Spitzer has taken a bold step forward; his career as governor will bear watching. The eyes of other attorneys general and governors are upon him.

How will he handle, for instance, the ambitious, publicity hungry attorney general of New York who will follow him? The interests of attorneys general and governors, despite the public comity between the two offices, do not always coincide. Governors are business boosters and shy away from litigation that serves to depress the interests of companies that are contemplating moving into the state and gracing it with tax dollars. Attorneys general are interested in ethical propriety, mugging for the cameras and someday becoming governor.

Blumenthal does not have Spitzer’s problems--yet.
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