In 1964, Ethel Merman sued Ernest Borgnine for divorce after 32 days of marriage.
In 1964, Ethel Merman sued Ernest Borgnine for divorce after 32 days of marriage. Her memoir devoted a chapter to the union. Its one page was blank. This month David Paterson, 53, became New York’s 55th and first black and visually impaired governor. His political page is empty, too.
Paterson’s swearing-in fused Mel Brooks, Henny Youngman, and Mr. Rogers: wearable, familial, a politician funny on purpose. He would dine with next-in-succession Joe Bruno, “but I’m going to bring my taster.” New York seemed lost in darkness, “but that’s something I know.” What a guy! The anti-Spitzer! Who guessed his honeymoon would be shorter than The Merm’s?
Ironically, many liked Uncle Dave’s whimsical reference to “my wife (Michelle) and (my) … different kind of marriage.” By next day he conceded serial liaisons with, among others, a $150,000-a-year employee at – yes – the Governor’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. Paterson’s speech registered 12.5 on a 1-10 scale. He should have quit while ahead.
The new governor now admits billing campaign funds – thus, mocking election law – for several trysts; $500, a then-girlfriend; $1,000, a day-care worker, non-existent “writing”; $485.42, furniture; and – my favorite – a $351.85 bar tab: politics as ATM. Reporting, The New York Times paraphrased a trash TV infomercial: “Governors Gone Wild.”
Eliot Spitzer covered up decade-long prostitution, possible money-laundering, and breaking federal law. Paterson’s cover-up thus far avoids state borrowing – illegal, and impeachable. At worst, the Senate and Assembly will chant, “There was a crooked man, who walked a crooked mile.” Few want Spitzer redux. The new governor will survive – for what?
The state budget deficit is $4.6 billion. Will Paterson back a high-income tax hike? New York’s post-2000 outmigration tops a U.S.-worst 1 million. How to stem the flow?Medicaid patients get more than twice the U.S. average. Will Uncle Dave say, no mas? Public-schoolers get more cash per pupil than any state. What do they learn? Albany deems business an enemy. Will governor 55 seek a truce? A blank page doesn’t tell.
On one hand, New York wants Paterson to succeed. On the other, a Quinnipiac University poll mostly conducted before his apologia showed 51 percent saying too soon to tell. Cynicism has several roots. Uncle Dave’s politics truly make for strange bedfellows. Spitzer evokes the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Finally, if experience is the best teacher, we’ve learned too much since the mid-1950s.
Spitzer wrote a tearful welcome to calamity. I once likened predecessor George Pataki to Heidi Fleiss, later apologizing to the latter. Catholic Mario Cuomo seemed to think the Protestant hymn, “How Great Thou Art,” referred to him. In the New York fiscal crisis, his predecessor, Hugh Carey, at least kept the Big Apple from bobbing under.
Caretaker Malcolm Wilson made Gerald Ford look charismatic. New York’s longest-running (15-year) Caesar made the taxpayer a piñata. “Nelson (Rockefeller), I like you,” said Thomas E. Dewey, memorably. “I just don’t think I can afford you.” To become governor, Rocky, in turn, swamped Averill Harriman: to Dwight Eisenhower, “a Park Avenue nincompoop.” Law of Averages, meet Murphy’s Law.
Tellingly, Dewey was the last (1943-55) governor most New Yorkers wanted to retain, tying the state Thruway, State University of New York, Niagara Power Project, St. Lawrence Seaway, first state civil rights bill, tax surplus, reduced tax rate, and 2 million new jobs. He retired as America loved “Lucy,” “Oklahoma!” spiked film, and transistor radio meant high-tech. Not exactly, say, the week before last.
To succeed, Paterson must forward a half-century of reverse. One suggestion: Stay on the road, introducing, selling. Another: Begin a weekly radio series: The governor can speak, thus, educate; educate, thus lead. Finally: recall Dewey’s leitmotif, “Good policy is good politics.” All could buoy a work-in-progress page.
“So we beat on,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in “The Great Gatsby,” “boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.” Like Ethel Merman, New York’s battered boat beats on toward the future, its recent past hopefully behind.
Curt Smith is a former presidential speechwriter, author of 12 books, and host of WXXI Radio’s “Perspectives,” at 2 p.m. Saturday and 11 p.m. Tuesday. E-mail him at email@example.com. / Daily Messenger