By Christmas, Gov. David Paterson was complaining that three weeks of ardent speculation over his choice of a U.S. senator to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton was “sounding more like the prelude to a high-school prom than the choosing of the United States senator."
By the time it ended with Friday's appointment of Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand of Columbia County, his process had devolved into more a junior high square dance, with well-spiked punch.
"Paterson looks dithering and indecisive with this two month long soap opera,'' said political science Professor Doug Muzzio of Baruch College.
The New York Times' Clyde Haberman saw the flaws, too.
“What began as a high-minded endeavor has degenerated into farce. Instead of enhancing his image as he approaches the end of his first year in office, the governor looks diminished,'' Haberman wrote Friday. “It's the governor who may have been hurt the most.''
Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Group cited the secretive process _ in which Paterson wouldn't even identify who was interested in the job or any responses to a detailed, written questionnaire.
“I think the process has been indefensible,'' Horner said. “I think the governor made the initial mistake of viewing this as a private matter.''
Maybe it's a blip. Maybe the guy New Yorkers loved earlier this year when he stood up to special interests and the Legislature's spending on them will be back soon.
This really was an extraordinary time. Paterson faced the political opportunity -- or curse -- of his life in appointing a U.S. senator. He made applying for it confidential, because he wanted a senator in place as soon as Clinton was confirmed as President Barack Obama's secretary of state. He figured if the candidates were known, they risked being seen as antsy for another job that might not open up should Clinton fail to be confirmed.
Paterson's selection process was also, as he noted Friday, a professional and personal struggle. After all, many of these applicants were friends and people who gave him a leg up in politics.
Maybe. But it's been an ugly blip. And one 48-hour stretch this week was the weirdest.
At about 11 p.m. Wednesday, after six or seven hours during which Caroline Kennedy was rethinking her desire to take Camelot's torch to another generation, she apparently told the governor she was staying in the race. Just an hour later, amid swirling media coverage, she sent a brief e-mail to the governor and confused reporters: She was out.
Hours later, a person close to Paterson started anonymously peddling to reporters accusations that Kennedy had tax, nanny and marital problems. The state tax department has no record of a tax problem, and she denied she has any nanny problems in a December interview. In the same New York Times interview, she gushed that her husband was the most supportive in the world.
Among other missteps:
+ Paterson said he wanted a professional, confidential process without all the rancor and attention of a campaign. He got daily headlines of every nuance. And when attention waned a fraction of a watt, he made sure to tell a reporter or radio commentator how tired he was of all the attention, often giving conflicting hints from morning to evening drive times. He later said he was just trying to be forthright, giving his very latest thought at the moment.
+ He defended his 28-page questionnaire to candidates seeking financial, tax and other background material and even said -- wrongly many legal experts told The Associated Press -- that it was beyond the public's view under the state Freedom of Information Law.
+ He said he need a confidential process to make sure he got the best candidate, one who could rally widespread support for a 2010 special election and then go on to win a full term in 2012. Instead, he angered 10 to 20 competitors -- he never confirmed even how many applied -- with more experience than Gillibrand. That immediately raised the chances of a primary, and a serious Republican challenge in 2010.
+ He said the decision was about the need for a senator who could hit the ground running in Washington to bring back a big stimulus package to help fix New York's historic fiscal crisis. Instead, of the candidates who had held elected office, he picked the least experienced.
+ He said, invoking Barack Obama, that the days of “identity politics'' were over and he wouldn't pick a senator because their gender, home or ethnicity fit a political need. Gillibrand, however, was the best fix for what would have been an all-male, all-downstate ticket in 2010.
“I think it's a dangerous decision on his part because in 2010, he's going to be measured by the public based on what he said he was going to do,'' Horner said of Paterson, who for 20 years in Albany before becoming governor called for more transparency and accountability in government.
The Jan. 15 Quinnipiac University poll found Paterson's approval dropped to 53 percent, from 64 percent in August. The same day, a Marist College poll put Paterson's job approval at 44 percent, down from 54 percent the month before and the first time Paterson dipped below 50 percent.
Maybe New Yorkers are starting to measure a little early.