Would the audience gather for "The Cataclysm of 2008-2009: Lessons Learned and Lessons Ignored," a finance discussion from a man who, as New York's attorney general, took on white-collar criminals, shady investment banking practices, and predatory mortgage lenders? Or would they be more interested in an up-close encounter with a shamed adulterer? Was it the banking or the boinking?
By 6 p.m. the Blue Room at 595 Market Street was brimming with spectators and camera crews for the sold-out event. When Spitzer took the podium in his smart black suit and wedding ring, the audience of 300 erupted in applause.
Despite his public humiliation in March of 2008, the former governor couldn't have looked more confident before the crowd. In his introductory remarks on upcoming Commonwealth Club speakers, he immediately -- though subtly -- acknowledged his misdeed. "I have to say, hearing John Yoo will be here makes me seem totally non-controversial," he said. The audience roared.
Audience members varied considerably in age, ethnicity, and gender, but were homogeneous in sophisticated attire and unabashed approval of Spitzer. They nodded and applauded sporadically throughout his frenetic discourse on the necessity of enforcing governmental regulations on the financial industry. They seemed to especially relish his attacks on Barack Obama. "It's the incredible shrinking presidency," he said after announcing that in case we hadn't heard, health care reform is off the domestic agenda.
As Spitzer spoke, audience members penned questions on small note cards collected by moderator Mary Cranston, a lawyer and former chair of the Commonwealth Club board. There were some finance-related questions, but as it turned out, even this genteel audience couldn't resist inquiring about the scandal.
"I have a number of questions around your resignation as governor of New York," Cranston said. "Obviously it was a difficult circumstance...What advice do you have for young people considering political careers?
Although he said he wasn't the one to give advice, Spitzer warned of risks and temptations inherent in an otherwise noble profession. "Be smarter than I was," he said.
Cranston didn't drop the issue. "America loves a rebirth story," she said. "Will you go back into elected politics?"
"Absolutely not on the horizon," Spitzer said.
That was disappointing to Barbara Collins, an East Bay woman interviewed after the event. "He should be back in politics, definitely," she said. "He's one of the few who actually went after anybody in power." As for the prostitution thing, Collins said, "it's really not anybody's business but his."
Health care reform activist Eva Chrysanthe went a step further in praising Spitzer. "We should be thankful that he had this unfortunate scandal because it frees him to say what he needs to say," she said.
Chrysanthe then brought up Thucydides, the exiled Greek general who went on to write a brilliant history of the Peloponnesian War.
"You fail. You stumble. You're cast out from society," she said. "It's in that period of disgrace that you acquire wisdom, so I think there's real value to having your life destroyed."