A bizarre mix of speculation and innuendo involving sex and drugs has had a surprising effect on New York Gov. David Paterson’s reputation: It has made him a sympathetic figure for perhaps the first time in his troubled 22 months in office.
For more than a week, Paterson has been under intense pressure to respond to rumors about him that have played out not in the gossip of political insiders but on the front pages of the New York tabloids. The rumors concern what’s in a supposedly forthcoming story in The New York Times that has taken on almost mythic dimensions before it has even run.
Tuesday afternoon, Paterson sought to seize control of a story that hasn’t run, and allegations that no one except the Times knows is in it, reporting on his interview with a Times reporter before the Times could.
"I was interviewed for that piece. No such questions related to any of that information was asked of me at any interview," Paterson said in a press conference called immediately after the interview with Times Albany bureau chief Danny Hakim.
Paterson said he'd asked Hakim about the rumors. "He said he would leave all that speculation for other news sources," the governor said.
Paterson went on to excoriate the Times for failing to clear the air around the rumors and to cast himself — believably — as the victim of an out-of-control press.
"They don't seem to be interested in addressing it or doing anything about it — I think it's appalling," Paterson said of the Times. The press, in floating the rumor, denied him “what I was owed as a human being,” he said.
Paterson, elected lieutenant governor in 2006, became New York’s first African American governor when Eliot Spitzer was forced to resign the governorship after a prostitution scandal. He began his new job with confessions of his own extramarital affairs, and things have gone downhill from there. His tenure has been marked by internal chaos, terrible political instincts and recently, questions around a gambling contract issued to a key local political figure.
Paterson has been struggling to keep his reelection bid viable despite a presumed challenge from the far better funded and more popular Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, and suddenly even longtime critics are sympathetic.
“He’s getting a raw deal. There are no specific allegations out there.
“There’s only this speculation about what the Times report might contain,” Brian Lehrer, the widely heard WNYC radio host, told POLITICO. “This will generate sympathy for him — but probably not enough to save him from being defeated by Cuomo.”
In his response Tuesday, Paterson was clearly trying to capitalize on the same skepticism of the press, and revulsion at its intrusion into private life, that helped revive Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign in February 2008, when the Times, after weeks of similar speculation, reported on McCain’s relationship with a female lobbyist. That story was met with a storm of criticism.
"The only way I'm not going to be governor next year is at the ballot box, and the only way I'm leaving before that is in a box," Paterson said.
New York City is a media town, one that looks instinctively for motives behind headlines and has been known to sympathize with the press’s victims. It was, one editor remarked, Paterson’s A-Rod moment: The Yankee slugger turned the corner on his own image crisis, driven by reports of personal vanity and steroid use, last summer when he turned — in the public eye — from a target into a victim.
Something similar seems to be happening to Paterson.
“I don’t like someone being attacked by unattributable rumors,” said Stuart Applebaum, a New York union leader who has called on Paterson not to seek reelection. “The Times should either say it’s got a story or else they should squelch the rumor.”
The presumed Republican nominee for governor, Rick Lazio, attacked the Times’s behavior as “psychological warfare” in a letter to its editor in chief, Bill Keller.
One prominent national Democrat who backed the White House’s unsuccessful campaign to push Paterson aside concurred. “I don't care much for him or slimy folks around him, but this thing is way, way out of control,” the Democrat said, calling the New York Post’s gleeful coverage “revolting.”
The episode marked the explosive meeting of an old-school Albany state house culture with a media culture that has abolished the distinction between insider chatter and public gossip.
Albany’s baroque Statehouse, whose Legislative Correspondents Association occupies a sprawling warren down the hall from the Assembly Chamber, is treacherous and inbred in the best of times.
The New York Post’s Fred Dicker, the de facto dean of the state press corps, rules through a mixture of politicians’ fear and opportunism and uses the understanding that his sources are everywhere to justify printing colorful and anonymously sourced allegations, many of which have — in the past — turned out to be true.
He wrote Monday, for instance, of Paterson’s “lack of focus on critical issues, his poor work habits and late-night, booze-fueled 'disappearances' at trendy nightclubs and undisclosed locations — when even his state police bodyguards don't know where he is [and] his penchant for spreading false rumors about aides and a peculiar reliance on two little-known assistants."
Late last week, Albany’s insular culture met the online media. A reporter mentioned on Twitter that he’d heard chatter — by then circulating for a week — of a “big, damaging” Times “bombshell.”
The blog Gawker seized on the post to offer that, “For what it's worth, there is a rumor that the governor and his wife are swingers.”