What Eliot Spitzer has to teach us

I recently spent an hour with former New York governor Eliot Spitzer at the CNN Center in New York. I have known him for a long time, both as New York’s attorney general and as the governor. We have spoken often over the years. The man is brilliant.

He is testimony to the fact that no matter what great problems and crises we all might face at some point in our lives, we can get up, dust ourselves off, and move ahead. In that way, Spitzer is a role model for all of us. He has an extraordinary intellectual grasp of the problems we face.

Things happen for strange reasons. As I sat there listening to him analyze the problems facing the world, I couldn’t help but think that his work on television makes him a lot more influential than he was as governor, even in a state like New York. Millions of Americans have watched his show, and in a dumbed-down country where we are all easily manipulated, we desperately need to parse the issues of the day in order to fulfill our role as citizens.

The problem is that most Americans do not like to face intellectual challenges. We like to go where we are welcome and where our ideas are validated. That’s why the right-wingers flock to Fox and some of the Limbaugh-like fringe people, who throw them red meat every day. That’s why, with some regularity, those with a more left-wing orientation choose to hear Rachel Maddow’s take on the news. Since television is all about ratings points and ratings points translate to revenue, the temptation is to give the TV watcher what he or she wants.

Spitzer does an incredible amount each day. In addition to his show, he writes regular columns for the online journal, Slate. He helps run his family business, which is among the most important in New York. He teaches courses at the City University of New York, an institution that he treasures along with the State University of New York. He sees our public colleges and universities as the gateway to entry into our middle class for people who would have little hope of ever getting there without an affordable public education. Despite the fact that Spitzer has a lot of money himself, he believes that the richest people in the country should pay higher taxes.

My friends at CNN tell me that he spends much of every day conversing with some of the best minds in the world in preparation for his evening program, “In the Arena.” He can pick up the phone and get people that few others could. He told me that he loves to have people on with him whose take on things is different from his own and that led to a fascinating discussion of ratings and what CNN’s issues may be.

The CNN philosophy (and the Spitzer philosophy) is to try to get to the truth through a reasoned back and forth discourse. He says that the idea is to always remember that you are a host and the person you may disagree with is your guest. There comes that moment, he says, when you have to figure that you may have gone a little too far and the guest is about to pull off the microphone and walk off the set. That’s when you back off. What’s more, he says, you always want a good guest to come back again.

Spitzer was a first-rate attorney general and a first-rate prosecutor. He got a lot of practice at this kind of back and forth, which left him in a position to employ intellectual rigor in the way he runs his show. Finally, I have to tell you that I really like and respect the guy. I encourage you to watch him and see what I mean.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 5/21/11

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