Where's Richie Roberts???

Silda Wall Spitzer and her husband, New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer, after their 64-second press conference yesterday in Manhattan.  (Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

March 11, 2008

Perhaps it is crude to make this parallel, but allow me to make it.  And it is film-related.

Two men (some would say most men) had something in common after yesterday's astonishing revelation about Eliot Spitzer, the Governor of New York State, who yesterday in Manhattan held a 64-second press conference with his saddened, shocked and dismayed wife by his side, to make a statement about betraying the trust of his family and the public.  What the world was just getting to know was that an affidavit by federal prosecutors had depicted the governor, a Democrat, as a participant in a prostitution ring, where one of the working ladies of a V.I.P. gentlemen's club was shuttled from New York to Washington, D.C. to a posh hotel where Client-9 (allegedly Governor Spitzer) was staying. 

The details, which the mainstream press (and the affidavit) has zealously chronicled, will not be repeated here. 

For eight years as the Attorney General of New York State, Mr. Spitzer ran the Empire State in his position and mostly succeeded as Mr. Clean, a crusader against corporate waste and corruption, bringing down those companies that would interfere with the rights of the everyday consumer, while also busting drug trafficking and declaring prostitution rings a scourge.  He had successfully prosecuted two of those rings in his tenure as attorney general.  Even some of New York City's leading newspapers mocked Mr. Spitzer's straight and narrowness, jibing at his moral rectitude as a politician.  Mr. Spitzer became New York's governor in a landslide election victory in November 2006, holding the office for barely a year before yesterday's news of the sex scandal came crashing down on him.

Richie Roberts, though not a politician probably has much in common with Mr. Spitzer. 

Mr. Roberts, most recently portrayed in Ridley Scott's "American Gangster", is -- dare I say it -- a "better"? and counter-example of a flawed but honest man.  For those who have not yet seen "American Gangster", which now has a home on DVD in the U.S. and Canada (and soon in other countries, if not already on the big screen), Mr. Roberts (as played by Russell Crowe in the film) was a Newark, New Jersey narcotics police detective in the 1960's.  During one drug surveillance operation he had the chance to keep almost $1 million in unmarked bills.

Where it would have been easier to breathe than to do the right thing, Richie Roberts chose to turn in every last one of those greenbacks to the Essex County police precinct where he worked, much to the disdain of his crime-fighting colleagues who quickly made him a pariah not to be trusted. 

Mr. Roberts, like Mr. Spitzer, led by example in his profession, becoming a prosecutor and eventually bringing down a decade-plus old empire of corruption that pervaded New York City's police in the 1970's, successfully nabbing as a cop, then prosecuting as a lawyer Harlem's drug kingpin Frank Lucas (portrayed in "American Gangster" by Denzel Washington.)  With Mr. Lucas' help, Mr. Roberts also brought down a drug racket where New York City's finest were on the take -- cops shaking down drug dealers and then reselling their narcotic merchandise, making heaps of profit in the process. 

By the time Mr. Roberts and Mr. Lucas were finished, three-quarters of the police in the Big Apple's Special Investigations Narcotics Unit were convicted of bribery and other charges.

Like Mr. Spitzer (as of this writing, still the governor of New York), Richie Roberts was less than a shining example of moral rectitude in his personal life, cheating on his wife (played in Mr. Scott's film by Carla Gugino) at every turn.  The cheating episodes are played somewhat for laughs in Mr. Scott's brilliant film, but the truth is, it isn't funny.  Mr. Roberts, as shown in "American Gangster", admits to a fault during a custody proceeding in court that he was a lousy husband and father, and readily ceded custody of his son to his estranged wife.

Another thing -- though by no means a justification for their incorrect behaviors -- that may bind these two men is that their relentless public commitment to cleaning up the streets of drugs, corruption and vice was so strong that one may argue that they needed to feed their gratifications with philandering to relieve the stresses of consistent honest dealings in and before the public.  That particular argument is a lame and pathetic one to be sure, but not an apologist's take, by any means.

In the Universal Pictures hit film comes the question, "Did you really find a million dollars in the trunk of a car and turn it in?"  It is a question asked by Mr. Washington's Frank Lucas, whose "Blue Magic" drug killed thousands in New York City and adjoining neighborhoods over the years. 

Mr. Crowe's Roberts, shifting uncomfortably in his seat, assents in response to the question.  "My man," toasts Mr. Washington's character, with a smile.

Then comes the $64,000 (or 64-second) question: "Why did you do it?"

"It was the right thing to do," replies Mr. Crowe's Roberts. 

In another about-face, Mr. Roberts later became Mr. Lucas's defense attorney after Mr. Lucas was released after serving 15 years in prison for the very crimes that Mr. Roberts prosecuted him for.

But Mr. Roberts, though a violator of the sacred trust that is marriage, can at best be admired for his steadfast devotion to a sense of justice, even as, based on yesterday and on high-profile scandals time immemorial both political and otherwise around the globe, it is almost always the women and family members who inevitably get the short end of the stick when their husbands' adultery comes into play.

The real-life Richie Roberts (left) on the set of "American Gangster" with Russell Crowe, who portrays Mr. Roberts in Ridley Scott's film.  (Photo: David Lee/Universal Pictures)

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