The Tragedy of David Paterson and What Might Have Been

Paterson’s enemies may be cheering his exit, but there’s a sad aspect to this

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    Governor David Paterson

    A great poet once wrote: “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ’It might have been! ”

    David Paterson, the 55th governor of New York, felt that kind of pain today. New York’s legally blind governor took himself out of the race for a full term as governor, even as a cloud of criticisms and charges continued to rain down on him.

    The governor has asked the Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, to investigate allegations that he and the state police who report to him pressured a woman to drop domestic violence charges against his close aide, David Johnson.

    Paterson denies that he did anything of the kind. In a tense press conference, he insisted “I’ve never abused my office, not now, not ever.” Cuomo has agreed to undertake the investigation of what, some Paterson critics say, amounted to criminal wrongdoing.

    His wife, Michelle, stood silently, expressionless, beside the Governor as he bowed out, promising to work tirelessly for the people of New York in the 308 days left in his term. Paterson’s political enemies may be cheering his exit, but there’s a sad aspect to this story.

    Paterson, in his 56 years, had to overcome great adversity on the road to reaching the highest office in New York State. His parents and young Paterson were determined that he be educated in a normal environment. Despite his blindness he was “mainstreamed.” He went to school with children who had no disability.

    He strived to excel and did, ultimately graduating from Hofstra Law School. Then, following in his father, Basil Patterson’s footsteps, he entered Democratic politics and had a successful run. He was elected to the State Senate and, ultimately, became Minority Leader and, when Eliot Spitzer ran for Governor, he became Lt. Governor.

    Paterson was as flabbergasted as his fellow New Yorkers were when, two years ago, Spitzer resigned in a prostitution scandal and Paterson found himself elevated to a job he did not seek -- Governor.

    Spitzer resigned in 2008 on St. Patrick’s Day -- and the Albany of the post-Spitzer era has been a crazy place. In the Legislature there was scandal after scandal, including an infamous deal that gave two relatively inexperienced Democratic senators key jobs temporarily -- provided the Democrats ceded control of the Senate to their Republican rivals.

    The Legislature was virtually paralyzed for months. Action on the state budget and other key matters was delayed. There were a series of corruption scandals, including the conviction of the former Republican Senate Majority Leader on corruption charges.

    Somehow, the governor’s critics managed to blame him for a lot of this, decrying him as a weak leader. Columnists and editorial writers engulfed him in abusive rhetoric. I have covered seven governors and I can never remember such a concerted attack.

    Paterson did some strange things right at the start of his tenure. For one thing, perhaps anticipating that it might come up, Paterson and his wife admitted to some infidelity on both their parts in the past.

    Some of us may not have fully appreciated the determination he showed in overcoming his disability. He was legally blind but managed to memorize long political speeches and deliver them flawlessly. He often memorized reams of statistics and belted them out at news conferences. He had a quirky sense of humor.

    When I asked him about his disability and how it had affected his life, he shrugged it off. He wasn’t looking for praise for his battle against blindness.

    Promising to devote his remaining days to getting a budget passed and accomplishing certain legislative goals, the governor was philosophical. “I am being realistic about politics. It hasn’t been the latest distraction, it’s been an accumulation of obstacles.”

    This last obstacle was clearly  too much.