A Troubling Choice: The Pope With a Past

In speedy fashion, the princes of the Catholic Church have chosen the German-born Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to fill the shoes of John Paul II. The contrast is startling: As a young man, John Paul defied the Nazi occupiers of his native Poland, choosing to go underground rather than collaborate by his silence. But the young Joseph Ratzinger made a different choice: When he was 14, he joined the Hitler Youth movement.

Granted, membership in that pernicious organization was compulsory beginning in 1941. And he quickly was granted dispensation to leave when he joined the seminary. His father, a police officer, defied the brutal brown shirts, putting his family in some jeopardy.

Still, it is troubling and more than a little curious that the College of Cardinals chose a man with the scent of Nazism about him. Their decision was deliberate. They surely knew of his past and clearly decided that it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that he served, briefly, in the German Army. It didn’t matter that his behavior is such a stark contrast with that of his immediate predecessor.

So now the new Pope, Benedict XVI, will have to explain why the words “Hitler Youth” are in his biography.

Never mind that there are, in fact, explanations. The Pope should not be explaining such things to the world. Common sense should have disqualified Cardinal Ratzinger from leading the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics and serving as a moral voice for the oppressed and the victims of injustice-and of genocide.

The cardinals apparently do not care what others-even fellow Catholics-may think about the new Pope’s background. They are not embarrassed. In fact, based on the speed with which they chose Cardinal Ratzinger, they apparently had their minds made up before their airplanes touched ground in Rome for John Paul II’s funeral.

They chose a Pope with a past. And now they will have to live with the consequences.

Bob Kerrey: Maybe in Four Years

There’s rarely a dull moment in New York City politics. Last week, Bob Kerrey jarred the city’s political establishment by remarking that he might run for Mayor on the Democratic ticket this fall. “You know me,” he told reporters. “I am just crazy enough to do this.” Mr. Kerrey’s musings were bizarre: He had recently agreed to head “Democrats for Bloomberg.” Now he was saying that Michael Bloomberg had failed to wring enough federal tax dollars for the city from Washington, D.C., and that he could do better.

Mr. Kerrey has wisely pulled back slightly from his statements and issued a canned quote about how he is entirely focused on his current job as president of the New School University. As a former Nebraska Senator and 1992 candidate for President, with powerful friends in the Democratic Party and an attractive, genial public persona, Mr. Kerrey would be a formidable candidate for Mayor. But not now. He’s been a New Yorker for just four years, and in fact agrees with Mr. Bloomberg on most issues, as he noted in the same interview in which he said he might challenge the Mayor. “I think he’s been gutsy,” Mr. Kerrey said. “I think he’s authentic. I like what he did with the schools. He calmed race relations in New York in a way that I think is quite impressive.” His qualm with Mr. Bloomberg was his assertion that the Mayor wasn’t being contentious enough with the Washington Republicans, and that the Mayor should be “raising hell.”

But Mr. Bloomberg has done the right thing with Washington, choosing to build alliances rather than grab headlines. Taking an adversarial stance wouldn’t work: The Mayor of New York doesn’t have any say when it comes to federal tax policy.

Bob Kerrey’s intelligence and ambition are assets to New York. But he stumbled by stirring things up in such a nonproductive way. Still, he’s a welcome voice, and over the next four years he’ll have ample time and opportunity to introduce himself to New Yorkers.

Pataki, Bruno and Silver: Nothing to Cheer About

If you happened to be in Albany earlier this month, you probably heard the whoops of bipartisan celebration coming from the New York State Assembly and Senate. For the first time since 1984, they managed to pass a budget on time, and they were mighty pleased with themselves for doing so. But as Attorney General Eliot Spitzer remarked, the budget they passed is a turkey, failing to address many of the state’s pressing financial problems and showing reckless disregard for the state’s long-term economic health.

It seems that Governor George Pataki, Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno believe they can just keep sweeping New York’s financial troubles under the rug, and that no one will notice the huge lump in the middle of the room. That lump has a price tag: The state is facing a $6 billion deficit in the 2005-6 fiscal year. State Comptroller Alan Hevesi has projected that the current debt load of $49 billion will rise to $54.6 billion in five years. (It was $27.6 billion in 1995.) The new budget doesn’t make a serious effort to grapple with exploding Medicaid costs and a court-ordered ruling to reform state school aid. As Mr. Spitzer said, “This budget deferred many, if not most, of the difficult issues that are confronting state government …. How do we pay for education? How do we control Medicaid spending? How do we invest in infrastructure?”

New Yorkers have suffered for years because Albany lacks intelligent and responsible leadership. Mr. Pataki has undermined the state’s economy at every turn, from ignoring the requirement in the State Constitution that voters have to approve state borrowing, to issuing bonds based on future revenues from tobacco settlements, to treating the Debt Reform Act of 2000 as a joke.

The entire crew in Albany should be replaced. The Governor is intrinsically mediocre, the Speaker of the Assembly is captive to the labor unions, and the Senate Majority Leader is for sale to anyone willing to invest in his party’s campaign committee. George Pataki, Sheldon Silver and Joseph Bruno are hopeless. Fortunately for New Yorkers, Mr. Spitzer is well positioned to take Mr. Pataki’s job next year. It can’t happen soon enough.