Eliot Spitzer on Working for CNN: ‘I’m having a barrel of fun!’

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— DIANE CLEHANE

Although it might not seem like it given the sheer numbers of journalists reporting from England this week, there are plenty of media folk and fashion mavens who aren’t headed out of town to cover that little get-together at Westminster Abbey on Friday. The dining room at Michael’s was packed today with A-listers of every stripe.  I lunched with my good friend Lisa Linden and Eliot Spitzer and we had plenty to talk about. Eliot joined us fresh off this morning’s shuttle from Boston where he’d given a lecture at MIT yesterday. He also taped last night’s broadcast of Inside the Arena from there.

While the rest of CNN is in the grips of royal wedding fever, Spitzer couldn’t be happier to be left out of the lovefest across the pond (“I’m really upset they didn’t send me over there,” he quipped). The subject did come up on last night’s show when he questioned Muslim activist Anjem Choudary about his planned protest at the wedding. While Spitzer pressed him on whether he was planning to “bring violence” to an  event watched by over two billion people, Choudary continually evaded the question. It was fascinating to see a flash of Spitzer’s past as New York’s attorney general come through during the exchange. Perhaps not so coincidentally, it was announced this morning that the group had canceled the planned protest.

When I asked Spitzer if he considered himself a journalist or a commentator, he answered simply, “I don’t know. I don’t mean to be vague. When the issue of objectivity comes up, I don’t think there is any such thing as objectivity. I don’t mean to say you infuse everything with bias and don’t try to be rigorously factual, but how you present every fact depends upon the prism through which you see it.”

He is clearly relishing his newfound career as a talking head.  “I really am enjoying it,” he told me. “I’ve said this before — when Jon Klein called, I said, ‘You’re kidding’ — but it’s been a barrel of fun.”

When I mentioned that’s not exactly how various reports characterized the mood on the former Parker Spitzer when he cohosted with Kathleen Parker, he said: “I liked Kathleen from the get-go. She is a real talent and we had loads of fun.”

“Every creative process goes through several iterations. I left it totally to [CNN]. I’m the new kid on the block in this medium,” he continued. “I said, ‘You just tell me what you want me to do, and I’m game for whatever role you want me to play.  It’s not my place to make some of these judgment calls. I can see if I have a skill set here. If I do, wonderful. If I don’t that’s fine, too.”

Interestingly enough, although the broadcast has been refashioned with Spitzer as its apparent star, he stops short of calling himself the host.  According to the press release on CNN’s website, the network’s president describes it as an “ensemble show” with Spitzer sharing the spotlight with contributors E.D. Hill and Will Cain (whose faces appear on the show’s site along with Spitzer’s). He wouldn’t define Hill’s and Cain’s roles other than to say, “It’s working the way it is right now.  I think most people feel comfortable with it. E.D. is really good and comfortable on camera. Will is great when we’re having these political dialogues. We’re getting into a rhythm where the segments are interesting. We’re finding the right guests who can educate without being partisan.”

Spitzer says  shows like In the Arena inspire “drive-by viewing.” He said it’s not  “destination television,”  but rather what news  junkies turn to if “if  they don’t happen to be watching the Knicks or American Idol and want news. There has to be interesting conversations. Good guests are key to the show.” Among Spitzer’s favorites is David Gergen, but that wasn’t always the case. “There was a point in my life where I was skeptical of people like David who were always at the center, somebody who could be in the White House in four different administrations across all ideologies. I said to myself, ‘There’s something wrong with that malleability. But, as I got to know David, I love the guy. Anybody who is in a position of power who doesn’t call him is making a huge mistake, because he has the wisdom, the ability and the presence to really judge the situation.”