Spitzer honed his lust for power as Princeton student body president
Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced former governor of New York who is trying to make a comeback running for New York City comptroller, got his first taste of bullying opponents and pushing technocratic rule when he served as the elected president of the student body at Princeton University.
Elected in 1979, Spitzer, class of 1981, gave a youthful demonstration of his expansive attitude toward power by broadly interpreting the purview of what is generally viewed as a symbolic office.
Among other things, Spitzer pushed a proposal to allow Princeton students facing disciplinary hearings to plead the Fifth Amendment for bad behavior and opposed changes to the Ivy League school’s honor code. He also waged a vengeful campaign against one of his critics in student government.
Spitzer “first proposed that students be given a silence privilege in the wake of several student arrests for drug possession in December 1978,” reported the Daily Princetonian newspaper, popularly known as “The Prince,” in February 1980.
“He was concerned that testimony given before the Discipline Committee might be subpoenaed by legal authorities,” The Prince wrote.
Spitzer’s Carter-era respect for rights of the accused did not suggest the future crusading New York attorney general whose questionable prosecutions of private sector financiers earned him a reputation as the “Scourge of Wall Street.” But it did hint at his habit of seeking the widest possible application of power in any office he holds — a habit he clearly hopes to continue in the comptroller’s office.
“The metaphor is what I did with the attorney general’s office,” Spitzer said in a recent interview about his desire for power over New York City’s finances. “It is ripe for greater and more exciting use of the office’s jurisdiction.”
Spitzer at Princeton was also vocal in fighting a proposed change to the student honor code that penalized students who did not turn in cheating students.
Described by The Prince as “one of the leading opponents of the change,” Spitzer ridiculed the idea that students “rat” one another out and disagreed with the very idea of there being a code in the first place. “Collective honor is not feasible, nor does it mean anything. Individual students will not see a difference between being turned in by a proctor or by a student,” he said.
“Spitzer also believes that the two responsibilities of not cheating and of reporting cheating should not be dealt with identically,” wrote The Prince. “‘The Honor Code recognizes varying degrees of emphasis,’ he said, adding that it is ‘a violation of the very purpose of the code to cheat,’ while no similar importance applies to reporting cheating.”
This too was a rights-based scruple that Spitzer seems to have overcome in his later career, when he happily prosecuted Wall Street figures for the vaguely defined crime of “insider trading.” But the penchant for legalese hair-splitting would turn up again in 2008 when, while he was the married governor of New York, Spitzer was revealed to be “Client 9,” a regular customer of the Empire Club escort service, paying thousands of dollars for the services of 22-year-old prostitute Ashley Dupré.
Spitzer resigned his office in the midst of that scandal, during which it was revealed that he left his socks on during sexual intercourse. But he avoided serving any prison time, and he has generally characterized the ordeal in self-pitying terms rather than by admitting his own guilt.
At Princeton, Spitzer also increased the student body’s fees to a record $8,761, a $900 increase from the previous year. He said the hikes in student fees were “unfortunate” but justified and “reflect what the university’s priorities have to be.”
Spitzer also helped block a proposal on campus to give students opposed to abortion a rebate on their student fees, which helped to pay for abortion. “The caucus also hotly debated, but postponed action on, a resolution asking that students morally opposed to abortion be given a rebate from their university health fees,” noted the Daily Princetonian at the time.
Still, Spitzer occasionally stood against the political left on campus. He opposed cultural exchanges with South Africa, calling them too “ephemeral” to stop the apartheid regime.
He also opposed anti-draft leader Mark G. Waren, ’81, who was photographed with a sign reading “There is Nothing Worth Dying For.”
Writing to the New York Times, which had published the photograph, Spitzer wrote, “The impression that Princeton undergraduates are especially unwilling to accept personal sacrifice for the benefit of the general good is misleading and should be corrected.”
Spitzer in his undergraduate office also perfected his habit of bullying opponents, punishing Andrew Ilves, a fellow student council member who criticized one of his decisions in the Daily Princetonian.
According to the Daily Princetonian, Spitzer told Ilves, “You’re going to be really sorry you did this.”
Spitzer retaliated for the critical article by removing Ilves from the leadership of the curriculum, a power he did not have. Ilves resigned in protest.
Two articles protesting Spitzer’s rule bore the headlines “Elections Princeton-Style” and “Machine Politics Come to Princeton.”
Spitzer went on to work for Alan Dershowitz at Harvard Law School. There he worked on the infamous Claus von Bülow case, in which the rich and powerful client had his attempted murder conviction reversed, despite voluminous evidence of his guilt. (In the movie version “Reversal of Fortune,” Spitzer is played by a woman.)