Pataki Sidesteps His Adams Problem

This St. Patrick’s Day, Governor George Pataki is not expected to break Irish soda bread with his pal from Belfast, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. Given Mr. Adams’ harsh, little-noticed words for the Bush administration in mid-February, Mr. Pataki may want to jot a quick note of thanks to Mr. Adams for not visiting Albany.

Like many top New York Republicans, Mr. Pataki is a loyal ally of the Bush administration and its war on terror, but he is also a longtime admirer of Mr. Adams, the charismatic leader of a political party affiliated with the Irish Republican Army. Mr. Adams put Mr. Pataki-and other New York Republicans, such as Long Island Congressman Peter King-in a tough spot several days ago, when he blasted the Bush administration’s plans for war on Iraq.

“If war is to be declared,” Mr. Adams said, “it should be war against poverty and for equality.” With rhetoric like that, one is tempted to ask: Why were Mr. Pataki and other G.O.P. leaders marching around with this guy in the first place?

The surface answer is obvious enough. Mr. Adams is an historic figure who, after decades of bloodshed, helped bring peace to Northern Ireland. Mr. Pataki, meanwhile, has reaped substantial benefits playing up his own maternal Irish roots in a state where Irish Catholics remain an important swing vote in suburban and upstate regions. So, ever since the Clinton administration allowed Mr. Adams to enter the country in the mid-1990’s, Mr. Pataki has made sure to schedule plenty of photo ops, especially around St. Patrick’s Day.

But one wonders how well Mr. Pataki’s relationship with Mr. Adams sits with President Bush. After all, it’s an open secret that Mr. Pataki is angling for a job in the Bush administration. Mr. Pataki’s leftward lurch during his second term made him few friends among social and fiscal conservatives in the Republican Party. Imagine the fun they’d have passing around photos of Mr. Pataki grinning alongside Mr. Adams-a left-wing, antiwar European whose supporters have, unfairly or not, been linked with terrorist acts on several continents.

Particularly bothersome of late to the Bush administration (and hence trouble for Mr. Pataki) is a trial unfolding in Bogotá, Colombia, where three Irishmen (including a top Sinn Fein aide) stand accused of training left-wing Colombian terrorists. Mr. Adams has said that Sinn Fein had no knowledge of, much less involvement in, the Colombia fiasco. But that didn’t prevent the Pataki-friendly (most of the time, anyway) New York Post from running an editorial which cast Mr. Adams as Osama bin Laden’s blood brother.

Consider the Murdochian source, Mr. Adams’ supporters sensibly argue. But the Post does reflect the sentiments of key G.O.P. supporters. At this delicate time, Mr. Pataki’s relationship with Mr. Adams may prove as damaging in Washington as it has been helpful in New York.

Sources within the Pataki administration say they believe the Governor can diplomatically agree to disagree with Mr. Adams on Iraq. Congressman King-who has been talking about running for the U.S. Senate next year-said that Mr. Adams’ opposition to the war “certainly doesn’t help” the Sinn Fein leader’s standing in America. But, he added, Mr. Adams can weather that storm “as long as he doesn’t make this into an anti-American attack.”

All of this still leaves Mr. Pataki in a bind. On the one hand, with St. Patrick’s Day approaching-and with Mr. Pataki’s poll numbers plummeting-don’t expect the Governor’s “Irish strategy” to abate any time soon. Several weeks ago, Mr. Pataki was scheduled to be the featured speaker at a dinner in Dublin (the latest of several trips to the Emerald Isle), but the heightened terror alert contributed to a last-minute cancellation.

Ubiquitous terror alerts, of course, do not work to the advantage of Mr. Adams. Though he has evolved into a widely respected leader, the shadow of the gunman still follows him. Last year, journalist Ed Moloney offered “definitive” proof that Mr. Adams was once a member of the I.R.A. This was significant news, interested observers admitted-after they were done yawning, that is. In the U.S. (and particularly in New York), Mr. Adams’ spotty past is not only accepted, but nearly revered.

It is one thing, however, to forgive Mr. Adams past transgressions against the British. (And even that is questionable, given the current warm relationship between Mr. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.) It is quite another matter to vocally oppose war in Iraq and also to remain associated in any way with terrorist escapades in South America.

As Mr. Pataki continues to drop in the polls-thanks to a tanking state economy and looming service cuts-a job with the Bush administration will surely look better and better. But as his pal Gerry Adams could certainly attest, the past may yet come back to haunt him.

Joe Conason will return to this space next week.