Eliot Spitzer's Mission Impossible

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Gillian Laub for TIME

Spitzer has the resources to tackle any challenge — except maybe another campaign

Eliot Spitzer was his usual agitated self. It was a brisk Tuesday evening, and the former governor of New York was bundled in the back of a black sedan, speeding toward the Comedy Central studios for a taping of The Colbert Report. The night before, Colbert had basically swallowed then Senate hopeful Harold Ford Jr. whole, like a boa constrictor eating a hamster. Spitzer, who by his own description has "nothing left to lose," was hoping to avoid the same fate by coming up with a clever line.

He has his own twisted history to mine for material. And there is always former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich to use as a foil. "I guess he and I have taken different paths. I'm not doing reality TV," Spitzer says, chuckling. "Or some might say I am."

Spitzer may not be starring in a television series yet, but he is bored out of his mind. ("When you have nothing to do all day, you eventually start yelling from the rafters," he blurted when I first called him.) He is also frustrated, restless and desperate to get back into the arena but unsure how to do it or if it's even possible, given the immense baggage he would bring to any new endeavor. He was one of the most driven politicians in America, a rocket powered by ambition and hubris. Now he's like one of those windup cars stuck on the edge of the carpet, its motor grinding away, threatening to flip over.

His prospects for a full-fledged comeback may be slim, considering the transgressions that led him to resign as governor in 2008. After becoming chief executive of New York and swearing to enforce its laws, Spitzer was found to be a perpetrator, a patron of an illegal prostitution ring who was wiring money to shell corporations to pay for his habit. It was hypocrisy on a scale that was hard to fathom, as if Eliot Ness had been busted for peddling gin from his apartment.

At his wife Silda's insistence, he has undergone marriage counseling and therapy. But so far, Spitzer's attempted rehabilitation has largely been a media phenomenon. He's a favorite guest on cable news shows, where he opines about Wall Street and regulatory reform. As he struggles to redefine his legacy, he is helped by the plunging standards for public figures; we seem to live in the midst of an endless race to the bottom, where it is nearly impossible to become permanently discredited. The ineptitude of his successor in the governor's office, David Paterson, who is embroiled in scandals of his own and is facing calls for his resignation, has fueled nostalgia for Spitzer's onetime image of official competence. Still, it's hard to imagine that most voters could stomach having him back.

After a year and a half of hibernation, which he spent trying to repair his fractured family, Spitzer seems to have decided that he has done his penance. He has burst back into public view, eager to chime in on everything from the Treasury Secretary to the significance of the Democrats' loss of Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. Meanwhile, his friends are busy fanning rumors that he may again run for office, hinting in the press that he is "considering" entering the race for Senator, state comptroller or even mayor of New York City. ("You Can't Keep a Bad Man Down: Spitzer Is Eyeing a Comeback," read a headline in the New York Post, one of his main antagonists.) "Politics gets my heart pounding faster than buying a building and raising rents," Spitzer says. But on the question of his trying to return to office: "You have to understand what my family would go through," he says. "It would be unbearable. I just couldn't do that to them. It would be day after day of the ugly stuff."

If Spitzer is to be believed, then the question he faces becomes subtler: given that nearly every time his name appears in print, it is prefaced by the word disgraced, but given that he has expertise that could help prevent another Wall Street crisis, is there a way for the man known as Client No. 9 to have a policy role? After he let down his family and destroyed everything he built and fought for, can Eliot Spitzer lead a meaningful public life?

The Fall of the Sheriff
Spitzer exudes the aura of someone who has been pricked with a pin and now moves through the world partially deflated. He has a thin frame and a slight hunch to his shoulders, and the pugnacious set of his jaw is gone. But that voice — the booming, forceful aspect is still there, even if it's only coming at you from across a desk at his father's real estate firm, where Spitzer now spends his days puttering around before heading home at 6 to make dinner for his daughters. He talks extremely quickly, answers questions with questions ("Have you read Frank Luntz's memos?") and then talks right through your answers.

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