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Spitzer's gift is a plain-talking sensibility. He was a brilliant student and a star athlete, but he doesn't connect emotionally with people or ooze charisma like a Bill Clinton. He is attractive, though not in a classic way. His strikingly deep-set eyes underscore his drive and intensity. And his pronounced chin once moved the New York Times to comment, "His jaw actually juts." Spitzer has a cheeky sense of humor. (At the Institutional Investor magazine awards dinner for market analysts in November, he opened his speech by saying, "It is wonderful to be here this evening, because I really want to put faces to all those e-mails.") His competitive streak makes him a formidable foe. "Debating with Eliot Spitzer is like wrestling with a grizzly bear," says William Taylor, an old friend and founding editor of Fast Company. "You don't hope to win, just to get out alive."
To many Americans, Spitzer in 2002 personified integrity and trust. After the Internet boom blew out and their stock and 401(k) holdings evaporated, it was nice to find someone--anyone--who seemed to be fighting on their behalf. By taking on Wall Street, Spitzer clearly touched a chord. At the exclusive University Club in midtown Manhattan, under tall marble columns resembling those of an Italian palazzo, a well-dressed gentleman walks through a crowd toward Spitzer just to say, "Keep it up, Eliot!" Later, outside the attorney general's office near Wall Street, a young man crossing the street recognizes Spitzer and calls out, "Don't give up the fight!" Upstate, in Rochester, after Spitzer delivers a speech to local Rotarians, Bob Maney, a stockbroker at Prudential Financial (and a Republican to boot), says, "He's pushing the right buttons."
The rap on Spitzer is that he's ambitious, that he has his eye on a bigger prize. To his (off-the-record) critics on Wall Street, his pursuit of investment banks smacks of opportunism and grandstanding, of a public official out of control. "This could have been handled more effectively away from the glare of the press," says a senior executive at one of the banks Spitzer has gone after. But if this is all a political ploy, a platform from which to run someday for, say, Governor of New York, it's certainly not in most politicians' playbooks to take on the moneymen who rank among the most powerful people in the U.S.--and whom he might need one day to help finance a campaign. Spitzer, a child of privilege who attended Horace Mann School in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, N.Y., Princeton and then Harvard Law, has studied or socialized with a lot of these Wall Street types. "I have friends in the industry who think I'm doing the wrong thing," Spitzer says. James Cramer, an old friend who does market commentary for TheStreet.com and other media, is blunter: "Everybody on Wall Street hates this guy."
Spitzer didn't help his case at the Institutional Investor dinner. He surprised himself by accepting the invitation and surprised his wife, Silda Wall, by delivering the speech he had drafted. After the e-mail crack, he went on the offensive. He told the crowd that the awards--for the magazine's 31st annual All America Research Team--were essentially a sham and that, on the basis of his research, virtually none of the honorees merited praise. Several attendees muttered expletives and walked out.