Masters Delivers in Spitzer Biography

Masters ’89 withholds opinions but provides ample texture and detail

Brooke A. Masters ’89 scores a breakthrough with her first book, “Spoiling for a Fight: The Rise of Eliot Spitzer,” delivering a detailed analysis of the career of the New York attorney general and Harvard Law graduate who is one of the Democratic Party’s rising stars.

Masters makes the most of her exclusive access, detailing the battles that Spitzer has fought over the past seven years, which range from crackdowns on pollution and gun violence to suits against banks and mutual funds companies.

A securities and white collar crime reporter for The Washington Post, Masters wisely begins her book by giving readers just enough background on Spitzer’s life. We learn of his competitive, brilliant family—“In one often-repeated tale, [Spitzer’s father] Bernard reduced Eliot, then about seven or eight, to tears during a game of Monopoly”—of his academic success, and of his time in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.

But these stories don’t last long. Just under 50 pages into the 300-page book, the narrative turns to Eliot the Lionhearted, the people’s lawyer crusading against greedy Wall Street executives.

Masters, a former Crimson executive editor, takes Spitzer’s fights one at a time, and does an excellent job of clearly rendering the complex issues involved in the lawsuits.

She starts with the conflicts of interest at major investment banks, who would rate company’s stocks favorably in order to win their investment banking business. Carefully reconstructing how Spitzer and his team discovered the crimes that would make them famous, Masters relates each case in superb detail and with a novelist's pacing and development. Her narrative approach allows the reader to be constantly caught up in the suspense as Spitzer and his team break open case after case.

The only problem with the book—a lack of any sort of judgment on Spitzer—most likely arises from Masters’ training as a reporter. Readers are thus forced to reach their own conclusion on the key question that biographies are written to answer—without the benefit of Masters’ intimate knowledge.

Masters does, however, provide a variety of angles to assist them, first allowing Spitzer to define himself—he says his model is Theodore Roosevelt, Class of 1876—and then letting others have a try. Former Goldman Sachs chief John C. Whitehead ’68 calls Spitzer “scary,” for example, after allegedly being threatened by him.

From the facts that Masters lays out, it seems that Spitzer is most similar not to Teddy Roosevelt but to another New Yorker—Robert F. Kennedy ’48, the Empire State's one-time senator. A crusader who took on some of the toughest fights of his day—against mobbed-up unions, for example, and in favor of the civil rights movement—Kennedy, like Spitzer, was seen by critics as ruthless and arrogant. Supporters, on the other hand, saw a fundamentally decent man with the spine to effect change.

But on Kennedy, unlike on Spitzer, we have an answer as to who the man really was. In his definitive biography of Kennedy, renowned historian and Kennedy family consiglieri Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. ’38 leveraged his wealth of personal knowledge to convince readers that the second version of the story was far more accurate. He was tremendously biased, of course, but readers still benefited greatly from his reflections on what made Kennedy tick.

It’s unfair to say that Masters’ book is flawed because it doesn’t live up to Schlesinger’s—that’s setting the bar far too high. And in the end, Masters is a reporter, not a confidant.

These weaknesses notwithstanding, “Spoiling for a Fight” is an exhaustively researched and carefully-written book about a man whose greatest accomplishments almost certainly lie in the future.

—Reviewer Paras D. Bhayani can be reached at pbhayani@fas.harvard.edu.