The Big Pataki Message: Governor Runs New York, Not Some Upstart Mayor

Gov. George Pataki prefaced his endorsement of unannounced Presidential candidate George W. Bush with the sort of gosh-darn self-effacement we’ve come to expect from the poor boy from Peekskill who made good. “It’s not about me,” he said. Those who accepted this astonishing premise and then decried the lack of news at the event seemed unaware of the disconnect: The next time a politician marches in front of 23 television cameras for something other than him/herself, it will signal the imminent arrival of Armageddon.

Given the enormity of the well-placed rumors and outright fabrications preceding the Governor’s press conference on May 24, Mr. Pataki’s “It’s not about me” fib was but a small assault on truth. And it even persuaded the chroniclers in attendance, who seemed downright pissed off that the big stage and the spotlights were not, in fact, about George Pataki. Can you believe all this hype! And for what? Why, it wasn’t even about George Pataki!

Even after five years of Mr. Pataki’s leadership, New York has yet to appreciate the subtle beauties of his political skills. He promised that he would deliver important political news, and he was as good as his word, even if its significance seemed too ethereal for those manipulated into believing that Mr. Pataki would do anything except become the 17th Republican Governor to endorse Mr. Bush.

To Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, to the Republican Senators who have been demanding that the Governor sign off on the Mayor’s ambitions, Mr. Pataki sent a very clear message: In these here parts, Governors, not Mayors, run state politics, control campaign purse strings and decide things like Presidential endorsements. To illustrate the point, Mr. Pataki trotted out every Republican dog-catcher who had the wit to tell the difference between the Sheraton New York (where the event took place) and the Sheraton Manhattan (where it didn’t)–except the Mayor of the city in which the event took place. He invited Representative Rick Lazio of Long Island to join him on stage, the same Rick Lazio who, the day before, told a national talk-show panel that he might challenge Mr. Giuliani for the Republican Senate nomination next year. And the partisan pep rally featured no tributes to Mr. Giuliani’s Republican stewardship of New York.

“It’s not about me,” the man said. But the sound that echoed through City Hall on May 24 was that of a thousand B.S. detectors screaming in unison. “This is the Governor’s way of making it pretty clear that he’s going to take credit for delivering the state of New York for George W. Bush,” said one Giuliani administration official who requested anonymity. “It’s George Pataki’s way of sticking it to the Mayor. This is his way of trying to cut the Mayor out.”

The Governor’s spokesman, the shy, low-key Zenia Mucha, told The Observer that “anonymous Giuliani administration officials who spew out absolute garbage time and again don’t deserve comment from me.” Though clearly reluctant to engage the topic, she was persuaded to continue. “Anyone who knows Politics 101 understands that the Governor of the State of New York is titular head of the party. Perhaps [Giuliani administration officials] should go back and learn the basics.”

See? There was no news at this press conference. It was just another boring political endorsement. Can you believe we were manipulated into believing that something would actually happen?

Battle to the Death

Some observers concluded that Mr. Pataki’s announcement might actually heal the rift between Albany and City Hall. After all, Mr. Pataki and Mr. Giuliani would seem to be in the same camp, Presidentially speaking. Indeed, the Mayor’s own courting of the Bush family continued even after the Pataki press conference. Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, brother of the candidate in waiting, was a guest of honor at a Giuliani fund-raiser on May 25.

The political peaceniks may be thinking wishfully. The battle to be seen as the Great Northeastern Moderate Republican With a Future can end only with a stake through somebody’s bleeding heart. At least, that’s how some aides seem to be playing the same. One Pataki administration official crowed that the Governor’s press conference “sent a big frigging message about who the leaders of this state are. What does Rudy Giuliani bring to George W. Bush? What can he deliver?”

The point certainly wasn’t lost on those for whom it was intended, even if nobody considered it news . Ray Harding, head of the Liberal Party and a longtime adviser to the Mayor, was provoked into taking note of Mr. Pataki’s underwhelming performance when he was testing the Presidential waters himself and not creating much in the way of waves. “His explorations with respect to himself have gone bust,” Mr. Harding said, referring not to any New Age journeys Mr. Pataki has made but to his brief fling as a would-be national figure. “Now he comes and endorses George W. Bush. It represents the denouement of his own aspirations … It’s an attempt by Pataki to get back into the leadership ball game.”

Neutral observers and nervous money collectors find the spectacle unnerving. Georgette Mosbacher, a prominent New York Republican fund-raiser, conceded that the faction fighting has made raising money difficult. (Of the $7.6 million Mr. Bush has raised, only $167,000 has come from cash-cow country, the state of New York.) “They’re mystified, they’re angry,” she said of potential contributors. “It doesn’t make fund raising easy because there’s been so much discussion of this fight.”

Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard , found fault with Mr. Pataki’s provocation. “If you’re an out-of-state Republican who wishes both Pataki and Giuliani well, it’s hard to understand what Pataki’s been up to. The most obvious interpretation is pure vengeance.”

Served cold. Via a video hookup with Mr. Bush, Mr. Pataki pointed out that joining him for the great endorsement announcement were the people who helped him defeat Mario Cuomo five years ago. “This is the team that in 1994 stunned this press corps by electing me Governor of New York State,” he said. The gratuitous swipe at that hidebound target, the press, was designed to draw blood from thinner skin. Nobody, except Mr. Cuomo and his family, was more stunned in 1994 than Mayor Giuliani, who expended great energy in trying to prevent Mr. Pataki’s election.

And, in a gesture that betrays the presence of a savage genius lurking in the recesses of the State Capitol, Mr. Pataki played the Yale card on a commuter-school graduate (Manhattan College) whose insecurities are as much a part of his wardrobe as cheesy Yankee windbreakers. Oh, it was very spunky of the Mayor to go down to Texas earlier this year to get patted on the head by Mr. Bush, but, you see, Governor Pataki and Governor Bush go back a long way. Sure, George W. Bush was prep school and Skull and Bones and George E. Pataki was public high school and Yale Political Union, but they were there . They understand each other, and have all along.

Nice try, Rudy.

The Yale Connection

Actually, the Yale card, while breathtaking in its cruelty, wasn’t entirely inappropriate. As long ago as last summer, a couple of Mr. Pataki’s friends from his Yale days and a couple of Mr. Bush’s met for lunch at–where else–the Yale Club to talk about a seemingly natural alliance between the two Republican big-state Governors with big ambitions. Among others, the lunch included Leo Kayser, a Manhattan lawyer who went to college with both men, and Terry Johnson, Mr. Bush’s roommate at Yale. They reportedly talked about the importance of working together and keeping the lines of communication open between Austin and Albany. “They knew they were going to need each other’s support at some point down the road,” said one person familiar with the meeting.

In delivering New York’s Republican Party organization to Mr. Bush, Mr. Pataki ensured that the Texan will be spared the arduous process of getting on the ballot for New York’s critical March 7 primary. At Mr. Pataki’s behest, the machine will make sure that Mr. Bush’s nominating petitions have their i’s dotted and t’s crossed. And, more to the point, sharp-eyed Republican lawyers will be on the lookout for such oversights on the nominating petitions of Mr. Bush’s rivals. New York’s Republican organization is not shy about using arcane election law to turn Presidential primaries into the sort of faux democracy associated with Eastern Europe during the Cold War. George H.W. Bush’s allies tossed Bob Dole off the ballot in 1988; Mr. Dole’s allies managed to marginalize Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan in 1996.

In return for this assistance, Mr. Pataki probably has put himself back into the Vice Presidential sweepstakes. One top-level Republican source told The Observer that Mr. Bush’s allies recently sent a message to Mr. Pataki’s operatives: It was time to get on board the bandwagon, or risk future considerations. The Bushies reportedly cited the bright, shining example of Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania , a moderate Republican who endorsed Mr. Bush several months ago and who is considered prime No. 2 material. “Since all [the Pataki people] are thinking about is the Vice Presidency, and Ridge is on board, they didn’t want to put themselves in a disadvantage,” the source said.

Mr. Pataki could have chosen a standard endorsement press conference to announce his decision. But that would not have summoned the national press corps, certainly not at this stage, when Mr. Bush seems to have the nomination for the asking. Instead, the Governor used the opportunity to assert his authority, and used the buildup to torture his sibling rival in City Hall.

And it worked. In the days leading up to Mr. Pataki’s press conference, mayoral aides were chewing over the latest rumor with varying degrees of anxiety. Some were certain that Mr. Pataki was going to screw up their plans by announcing a Senate bid. Others insisted that the Governor had overplayed his hand by building up expectations for his news conference. And still others whispered that the Governor was going to announce the formation of an Elizabeth Dole-George Pataki ticket. So much for political intelligence.

“They’re crazed,” joked one observer who spends a fair amount of time around City Hall. “If nothing else, the Pataki people have succeeded–because they’ve managed to drive [mayoral aides] batty.”

But remember: This wasn’t about George Pataki.

And his press conference was a non-event.