March 17, 2008: 5:19 AM EDT
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Spitzer's bully pulpit

The fallen governor's schoolyard behavior caught up with him.

By Geoff Colvin, senior editor at large

(Fortune Magazine) -- When I heard the Eliot Spitzer news on the car radio, I slammed the steering wheel and said, "Ha! I knew it!" It wasn't that I knew he was a regular customer of prostitutes; I was as shocked as everyone else. And it wasn't that he'd rendered himself virtually friendless in his inept first year as New York's governor. It's just that I knew, and had told acquaintances, that this guy was going to blow up somehow. The reason, oddly, is how often he of all people had failed to behave like a grownup.

For years I had heard strange reports. The words that always occurred to me were "childish," "adolescent," "immature." Former GE chief Jack Welch had told me about a couple of encounters, the most dramatic occurring at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Spitzer was then going after Ken Langone, former director of both GE and the New York Stock Exchange. "We were having an amiable chat," Welch recalled. "Then - boom - he flipped his lid. He snapped. He started sticking his finger in my chest and said, 'You can tell your friend Langone that I'm gonna put a stake through his heart!'" Langone is no slouch as a trash talker, but this was simply juvenile.

At a dinner, Spitzer once made a point of telling me he had $20 million. How bizarre, I thought. I've met very few adults who felt compelled to tell me just how much money they had, but I've met lots of kids who did.

Much has been made of his episode with former Goldman Sachs chief John Whitehead, but the story as usually recounted misses the point, in my view. In April 2005, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed piece by Whitehead chastising Spitzer for being overly aggressive. Whitehead later reported that Spitzer then called him and said, in part, "I will be coming after you. You will pay the price.... You will pay dearly for what you have done." Whitehead said he was "so shocked" that he wrote down the conversation.

This is usually presented as an instance of Spitzer's thuggishness, which it certainly is. But of greater significance is what happened next. Through a spokesman, Spitzer called Whitehead's report "a complete fabrication." Understand that on Wall Street and in business generally, Whitehead's reputation for integrity is unsurpassed. Spitzer had flat-out called him a liar. So we knew somebody was lying, and I felt confident I knew who it was. I still do.

More childish bullying followed, most notably his announcement to a state legislator, upon his arrival in Albany, that "I'm a f---ing steamroller." It's a shame that his conduct undermined the work he did as attorney general, some of which - like cleaning up Wall Street's analyst conflicts - badly needed doing. But a man who couldn't behave like an adult certainly shouldn't have been a governor. It could have been worse. It's reliably reported that he eventually wanted to be President.  To top of page