The Man in the Bubble

What is it about George Pataki that lets him ice-skate so effortlessly through this campaign (seemingly, through life itself)?

He’s genial, all right, but his personality has no real force – have you ever felt, when you saw him on television, that you had to watch him? He’s smart, or smart enough, apparently, to have gone to Yale and to have made himself a pile in real-estate lawyering.

But he’s smarter than that, really, because what he has perfected in his years as governor is the art of inoffensiveness: He knows exactly what his important constituencies are, what would make them angry with him, and how not to make that happen. So that while all of them have their complaints about him, none is ever handed a reason to fume. For Rupert Murdoch, he holds the line on taxes; for Mort Zuckerman, he talks the talk on Israel and the business climate; for Dennis Rivera, it’s a fat contract and a trip to Vieques.

The lack of offense neutralizes everything – critics, scandals (there’ve been several of those, at least potentially, and they never got a whit of coverage), you name it. The net effect is narcotizing. It’s government as sedative. Rudy Giuliani was speed; he made you jumpy and a little paranoid. Pataki is morphine; he just makes you want to sleep.

Which is exactly the way he’s trying to win reelection. Look, for example, at this question of debates. He won’t debate Carl McCall and Tom Golisano head-to-head (to head). He has decided this agenda, and the owners and bosses of the Fourth Estate – the people who spend many contented hours congratulating themselves on their fierce independence – apparently couldn’t care less.

The McCall and Golisano camps have both agreed to a three-way debate. The Pataki campaign has not. Yet as I write, no news organization in the state has had the simple forthrightness to say that it’s sponsoring a three-way debate at this time and place; any candidate who doesn’t attend will be represented by an empty chair. News organizations started doing this a decade or so ago to compel candidates to face one another. It’s not complicated.

Imagine the self-righteous caterwauling we’d have heard if Hillary hadn’t agreed to debate Rick Lazio. But when it’s Pataki, somehow, they let it slide. The Times has run long interviews, conducted by the paper’s reporters and editors, with McCall and Golisano. But a little box appeared next to the McCall transcript that said in part: “Gov. George E. Pataki has said he will not participate.” A fuck you like that, to the most important newspaper known to man. The Times admirably returned serve with a very tough piece by James C. McKinley Jr. on October 17 about how the governor says absolutely nothing, ever. That piece may have signaled that the Times, at least, has roused itself from the nap and might start making a demand or two of the man. But it wouldn’t be shocking if he still gets the endorsement.

“Now, it seems, McCall’s only plays are to attack, which does not come naturally to him; to tie Pataki to the congressional GOP to the extent that’s possible; and to beg Bill Clinton for help.”

I don’t carry on about this because I think one debate will change anything. I carry on because of what this says about New York’s increasingly anemic political culture: Even the people who are paid to care don’t care.

I’ll never forget being in Chicago the night of the 1992 Illinois presidential primary. I went to the Clinton celebration at the Palmer House, and then to Carol Moseley Braun’s victory party. Then I went back to my hotel and watched in amazement as every network affiliate stayed on the air with local election returns until two or three in the morning. I was spellbound. It was as if I were seeing a different civilization; as if I were an Aztec watching the Spaniards come ashore and seeing a horse for the first time. It floored me how much they cared about all this, how vital to the bloodstream of that city politics was.

Not in New York, kids, not in New York.

More and more, New York politics is a process of, by, and for the insiders. Candidates sometimes do manage to transcend that and generate wider enthusiasm, and on those occasions the local political culture, like one of those demons that spring up from the earth on Buffy, comes to life.

Why hasn’t Carl McCall been able to do this? In politics as in love, first impressions are usually reliable. And the first impression of McCall – mine, and a lot of people’s – when this race started in earnest last spring was that he was organizing his campaign around the wrong idea.

McCall’s idea was his résumé, biography, experience. He has the life story, and, a few nepotistic letters notwithstanding, his service to the state has been honorable. Fine. But with just two-plus weeks to go, he hasn’t yet put forward a really sharp and focused idea about what a McCall era would look like or do (and since we’re doing drug metaphors, let’s note that McCall is not exactly an upper, either).

He’ll do something about education. But what, exactly? I doubt the average reasonably well-informed voter could say.

McCall’s campaign has assumed from the start that he would attract support just because of who he is. This began with the stratospheric number of endorsements his campaign was so hot on piling up last winter, endorsements that were more a reward for longevity than a sign of real belief. Ever since, the arguments of McCall’s advisers have been almost all strategic and numerical – that “the base” would turn out in huge numbers, that they’d steal x percent from upstate, etc.

But numbers and percentages appeal only to insiders. To appeal to outsiders, you need an idea. Preferably, it should have both positive aspects (why I’m great) and negative (why the other guy isn’t). Pataki had one in 1994, executed via a stunningly well-conceived game plan. Fernando Ferrer had one last year. True, he didn’t win, but that was because his idea – two New Yorks, time for the shunned and the forgotten of the Giuliani era to triumph – scared some (white) voters whose first passion was their property values. But it sure got his voters out.

Many top McCall advisers also worked for Ferrer – Roberto Ramirez, Bill Lynch, Harold Ickes, who told me last week from his Washington office that he was coming up to New York for the duration. Their skills are formidable, but they, Ramirez and Lynch especially, are chiefly mechanics: get-out-the-vote people.

Same brain trust; such different campaigns. But Ferrer’s “the other New York” language was his alone, reportedly. And the packaging of Ferrer’s most effective specific idea, a tax for after-school programs that he said would have cost the average New York family 4 cents a day, was developed by his media consultant, David Axelrod. This same Axelrod worked for McCall until Axelrod got impatient with McCall’s indecisiveness last year and left.

Now, it seems, McCall’s only plays are to attack, which does not come naturally to him; to nationalize the race, tying Pataki to the congressional GOP to the extent that’s possible; and to beg Bill Clinton for help. Pataki just skates. Golisano, to my surprise, is running a campaign in which he’s tacking right and left, stealing votes from McCall as well as the governor.

And McCall is trapped inside the bubble of an insular, indifferent political culture. That culture is okay with Pataki – for him, the more people ignore this election, the better – but it will retire McCall unless he finds a way to bust out of it.

The Man in the Bubble