Chris Smith: What We’ve Learned From the Paterson Circus

By
Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Albany needs a new novelist. William Kennedy's books are brilliant, but his ghosts and gangsters roam a state capitol that's been gone at least six decades. Capturing the absurdity that has reigned since Eliot Spitzer arrived as governor, and that reached new nonsensical heights this week, calls for a Hudson Valley version of Carl Hiaasen.

I did promise you weirdness when I profiled Governor David Paterson two weeks ago. But the series of events that began with an item on a business-news blog on Super Bowl Sunday were even more bizarre than I'd expected. The Times will eventually run whatever is left of its story about Paterson, and it may even turn out to be damning. Or not. The furor surrounding the work-in-progress is already instructive.

After days of being buried in speculation that he was involved in everything short of bestiality, the governor went on the offensive, attacking the Times and scoring easy sympathy points because the paper's reporters were determined to do old-fashioned reporting, and because the Times won’t fight back in kind. The Post does, however. That's why Paterson — even though he briefly, belatedly, disputed the "Page Six" tale of him "snuggling" with a woman in a utility closet — isn't more indignant about the tabloid's rough treatment of him. Paterson, like nearly everyone else in Albany, is scared of Fred Dicker, the Post's legendary state editor, who has great sources and sharp teeth. One Dicker column last week was especially genius: It passed along unattributed allegations of Paterson misbehavior ... and then blamed the Times for stirring hysteria by taking the time to verify information before printing it. (The News, as ever, is somewhere in the middle: Attentive to actual facts but willing to hype the juicy bits.)

Paterson may have seized a rare moment of tactical advantage, but he has no coherent strategy — although he does seem perversely determined to back up his campaign claims of being an "outsider" by alienating even his few remaining allies. After his righteous Times-bashing press conference, Paterson went on "Imus" and fragged Kirsten Gillibrand, the woman he'd appointed to the U.S. Senate, by praising her nemesis, Harold Ford Jr., while also keeping the larger nuttiness alive by claiming the Times’s phantom story had “hypersexualized” him. Of greater significance is that the whole tawdry episode has deepened Paterson's resolve to stay in the governor's race no matter what — and that his camp, more than ever, suspects that agents of Andrew Cuomo are stoking the attempts to push Paterson out before the Democratic primary.

The governor’s visit to this weekend’s conference of black and Puerto Rican legislators promises to supply even more melodrama. It's tempting to treat the past two weeks in New York government and media as pure farce and to be grateful for the ability of Albany to deliver entertainment value if nothing else. But that nothing else stuff is kind of important. The state is broke. A city hospital with a $700 million deficit and 4,800 HIV outpatients is being propped up week to week with taxpayer loans. The drinking-water supply is at risk of being polluted by the "fracking" of the Marcellus Shale. Whether or not it turns out to be criminal, the awarding of an Aqueduct "racino" contract that could be worth billions is emblematic of the governor's sloppiness: An issue drifts along for months, then a decision is made in haste and confusingly unveiled, making Paterson's motives appear as dubious as his management skills and allowing his enemies in the legislature to shift their share of the blame. Not to mention Paterson's terrible judgment in talking politics with one of the contract's winners, the Reverend Floyd Flake, three days after making the deal. (By the way, when has a politician’s involvement with gambling and racetracks ever turned out well?)

Some of the issues confronting the state are intractable; others, like the budget, are realistically subject to only incremental improvement. Yet the governor and the legislature, consumed by infighting, have done a lousy job of tackling the serious subjects at all. There are, to be sure, people with powerful political and financial incentives to foment distraction that help keep the ruinous status quo in place. I enjoy salacious gossip as much as the next guy, but the expanding vortex of silliness diminishes everyone and ensures that only crazy people will run for office. And while we laugh at the sideshow, things could get worse: A wealthy Buffalo developer is considering creating a statewide Tea Party so he can run for governor.