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

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Spitzer built his career on a reputation for integrity. That the reality of his conduct was more complicated — the famously violent temper, the time wasted in petty turf wars with state legislators — hardly mattered. He spent eight years as attorney general of New York and became known as a defender of the public against the corrupt impulses of Wall Street. He investigated subprime-mortgage lenders for making unscrupulous loans, went after AIG for bid rigging and charged stock analysts with deceptive practices. His nickname, the Sheriff of Wall Street, and his I'm-better-than-everyone-else persona carried him into the governor's office, where, despite a rocky first year, he was expected to bide his time before moving on to bigger things.

This sense of higher purpose made Spitzer's downfall all the more crushing, especially to members of his staff, many of whom believed they were practically doing God's work. "My own personal view is he must have gone mad there," says a former senior aide. "We had so many high expectations, and he couldn't live up to them — the public's or his own."

It's unclear how ambitious Spitzer still is, if he is ambitious at all. "When you go through what I've gone through, you come to appreciate who matters and what and why," he says, referring to his family. "But you also lose a bit of the edge that leads you to tilt at windmills. Maybe you might call that ambition. Silda used to say, 'Being right isn't the only thing.' I would get so caught up in the ambition of proving to the world we're right. You can destroy yourself that way." And he did.

Not everyone approves of his strategy for re-entry: appearing on comedy shows and saying yes to almost every media opportunity are at odds with his image as a man of substance. "The path to repatriation always seemed different from what he's now doing," says the former aide. "You were the champion of those who had no champion. Now find an underdog and win a case for them. Go back to your roots."

With access to his father's vast real estate fortune, Spitzer could easily launch a new foundation to fight for causes he believes in. "There is a whole range of possibilities, from educational institutions to housing to microfinance in the developing world," says Avi Schick, a lawyer and the former head of New York's economic-development agency. "He hasn't figured out precisely what he will do."

For now, rage toward corrupt bankers seems to course through his body — even when he's on vacation. He recalls a recent trip he took with his daughter to Utah to go skiing (something he often does nowadays). After a day on the slopes, he found himself drinking Scotch and talking to some "Wall Street guys" at the bar: "I looked them in the eye and said, 'You guys aren't worth it. Capital is overcompensated these days. It's un-American, and it's unjust.'" Spitzer thinks it's an outrage that the same bankers who brought down the world economy are still firmly in place, bonuses in hand, a government guarantee in their back pocket. "Never has so much been done for so few who need so little," he says. "We are supporting these tip-of-the-iceberg plutocrats." He holds the Obama Administration responsible — he calls it "continuity you can believe in."

Spitzer may imagine that he has the largest say in whether he returns and on what terms. But two books chronicling his meltdown are about to come out. One, Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, by Fortune editor-at-large Peter Elkind, purports to divulge new details about Spitzer's dealings with the Emperors Club prostitution ring, including revelations that he was a client for longer than was previously thought, according to someone familiar with the book's contents. The second, Journal of the Plague Year, by Lloyd Constantine, a former senior adviser and close confidant of Spitzer's, revolves around a three-day period after Spitzer was linked to the prostitution ring but before he resigned, during which Constantine camped out at Spitzer's Manhattan apartment. Spitzer was distraught and leaned heavily on his friend, confiding matters about his relationship with his wife. Now neither Spitzer nor Silda is speaking to Constantine. Has the thought occurred to Spitzer that some sort of organized campaign may have been behind the investigation that ultimately ended his career? "There are very powerful people who would probably do a lot to bring me down," he says. "Does it change the reality of what I did? No."

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