History books will say Paterson did what he had to do

So what should David Paterson do while he is running out the gubernatorial clock? Now that he is out of the race to succeed himself as governor, he is running not for the state’s top office but for posterity. Some day kids will be reading their history books. They will not see the dangerous parodies Saturday Night Live ran at the expense of a blind, African American. Nor will they see the chicken politicians imitating ostriches and refusing to meet the governor half way to straighten out the impossible mess the state got itself into. Despite all the tongue clucking and the sneering, David Paterson will go down in history as a guy who tried hard to do the right thing but couldn’t. Yes, the governor has made some big mistakes but in the end, he is his own man.

The history books will show that David Paterson turned to his Legislature, ostensibly run by fellow Democrats, but found that these chickens couldn’t and wouldn’t work with him. He decided to take matters in his own hands and gave them political cover to keep the state from going into bankruptcy. He took the blame for them. The man had to take mighty chunks out of crucial areas of the state safety net: education and health care. He had to alienate his friends in the unions, people who are generally natural allies of the Democrats. The point is that he did it, risking the inevitable fallout.

So how did this happen? How did we end up with David Paterson? Let’s not forget that the guy comes from one of the most distinguished political families in the state. He was raised to lead. Blind from boyhood, he trained his mind so that he can memorize huge amounts of material. He speaks like a pro, understands what has to be done and then does it. Eliot Spitzer needed a lieutenant governor who would not give him grief. He found the right man in Paterson. Paterson is black and that helped in polarized New York. Spitzer was thinking correctly. It was a brilliant political move.

So the rest was history. Eliot chose David and the match was set. You can trust me on this — the last thing that either Eliot Spitzer or David Paterson thought at the outset was that Paterson would end up as the governor, though Spitzer must have known on some subconscious level that by consorting with prostitutes, he was setting himself up for a fall. This is what we call the psychological theory of compartmentalization.

When lightning struck, some of Spitzer’s closest advisors and his wife wanted him to stick it out as governor but Eliot thought otherwise. I have spoken with those who were there with him in the bunker and I’ve interviewed Spitzer several times. Don’t forget, we’re talking about a first rate, brilliant lawyer and he knew that he might well have been prosecuted if he didn’t step aside. He thought he had no choice. He resigned.

David Paterson became governor and immediately told shocked reporters that he, himself, had not been a model citizen. He spoke of an open marriage and earlier drug use and he cleared the decks. He was doing okay until the aforementioned Saturday Night Live skits and his appointment of Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand, a bad error. Then things went into the toilet. Even though he was the first to tell the people what was coming, it didn’t matter. He didn’t get any credit. The stock market fell and we had a punch in the solar plexus. Andrew Cuomo was waiting in the wings and kept shut. David Paterson was out. But the man is doing what he has to. As always, the history books will be written by the victorious. In the short run, Paterson might not look good but my bet is that when the thoughtful scholars get going, Governor Paterson will receive a lot of the credit for saving the state from chaos. Time will tell.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 6/7/10

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