Lonesome George

081406 article kolhatkar Lonesome GeorgeBefore Governor George Pataki even had a chance to deliver his energy-policy speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.—the latest in a series of national auditions for his quiet Presidential aspirations—the verdict was already in.

“You’ve all heard the story,” said Jonathan Salant, the president of the press club, introducing the Governor. The extremely tan Mr. Pataki looked calm as he listened to the preamble, an uneaten slice of strawberry shortcake on the table in front of him.

“The Governor of New York wins his post,” Mr. Salant continued, “after defeating a heavily favored opponent. He delivers a well-received speech in prime time at his party’s national convention, and in his third term in office is talked about as a potential Presidential candidate, fueling such speculation by traveling to Iowa and New Hampshire. Well … Mario Cuomo couldn’t be here today.”

Awkward laughter flickered through the room. But was Mr. Pataki in on the joke or just smiling, as if responding to a cue?

His thin, silvery hair was carefully combed and looked almost blond from a distance; he wore a navy suit and light blue tie. The comparison to Mario Cuomo was apt in at least one respect: Nobody seems to think his Presidential candidacy will get off the ground.

As one white-haired member of the press club said to another about 20 minutes before the festivities began: “He thinks he’s gonna be President. I’ll be President before he is!”

It was the sort of sentiment that has surrounded Mr. Pataki like a cloud of dust as he heads into the sunset of his 11 1/2-year career as New York’s Governor—and towards the decidedly murkier horizon of his political future.

Reached by phone as he dashed between events in New York City, Mr. Pataki said that he was “very pleased” with the reception his speech had gotten in Washington the previous day. But as far as he’s concerned, whether or not anyone is taking his Presidential plans seriously is of no concern.

“I have never worried about what the experts or the opinion leaders or the polls or others say,” Mr. Pataki said, when asked why he thought people weren’t paying more attention. “If you believe in something, then you just have an obligation, if you think it’s in the public interest, to try to advance that agenda.”

But what agenda precisely, aside from the coy Presidential one?

“He supports abortion rights, and rights for gays and lesbians,” Mr. Salant had said in his introduction. “He’s been described as affable and laconic.”

Or just safe. In fact, safe could well have been the catchword for the entire Washington event, which was as carefully stage-managed as a debutante’s coming-out party and clearly intended to address what is seen as one of the Governor’s greatest shortcomings: the perception that he stands for, well, nothing in particular.

“I don’t identify him with a particular issue,” said Ross Baker, a political-science professor at Rutgers University. “He’s not been terribly outspoken on the issues I think people consider important, like the Iraq war. So it’s hard to know where he fits. He comes across as a rather bland person, both in appearance and demeanor. It’s hard to say—how does a candidate like that catch fire and become a nominee? I have not heard his themes.”

Mr. Pataki seems to have taken this observation to heart, settling—at least for now—on “energy independence” as the mantra that will lift him above the other moderate Republicans, such as John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, both of whom have well-publicized Presidential ambitions and better name recognition.

On one hand, it makes sense: Mr. Pataki has legitimately solid environmental credentials, and that’s no small distinction among a field of industry-friendly Republicans. On the other, though, it’s hard to imagine talk of cellulosic ethanol rousing the masses.

His constituents in New York have delivered their own verdict on his past and future performance: His approval rating in New York hovers around 39 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll taken in June. And for now, at least, things hardly look better for him on the Presidential stage.

“A President Pataki—I don’t see that one happening,” said pollster John Zogby. “That’s a rough one. He starts with a pretty substantial deficit.”

Such assessments haven’t stopped the Governor from eating his share of shrimp ’n’ grits (or corn dogs, for that matter) on the weekends—and going through all the other necessary motions for any aspirant to America’s highest office. While some New Yorkers have been fleeing the sweltering city for the Hamptons or the Jersey Shore from Friday to Sunday, Mr. Pataki has embarked on an improbably (and perhaps unintentionally) stealthy Presidential campaign.

Another Road Trip

Just this past weekend, in fact, Mr. Pataki went to Keene, N.H., and Columbia, S.C., where he attended the National Governors Conference, as well as a ceremony at the White Knoll Middle School in Lexington, S.C.—he thanked the students for raising money to buy a new fire truck for New York City after Sept. 11—and a photo op with the South Carolina National Guard.

(A planned foray to Dows, Iowa, on Saturday night to pay tribute to former Iowa Senate Majority Leader Stew Iverson, who is working on Mr. Pataki’s campaign there, didn’t pan out.)

Mr. Pataki has brought on board some familiar names for his national venture. G.O.P. strategist Arthur Finkelstein is advising him politically. Leonard Rodriguez, who is described in the press as a protégé of Karl Rove and who has worked on George W. Bush’s Presidential campaigns, was hired as the political director of Mr. Pataki’s 21st Century Freedom P.A.C.—the fund-raising arm of his political operation—in May. Longtime Pataki associate Rob Cole is the P.A.C.’s executive director, and Meridian Communications, a New Hampshire firm, has been retained to help the Governor connect with Republicans running in the state. Mr. Iverson is chairman of the P.A.C. and is leading its activities.

Perhaps tellingly, Mercury Public Affairs, which has worked closely with Mr. Pataki throughout his entire gubernatorial career, is tied up with other Presidential hopefuls such as John McCain and isn’t playing any official role.

Whether the Governor is truly serious about mounting a bid to become President is unclear; the important thing is that he seems as if he is, or might be.

For a lame-duck governor, cultivating confusion might be the best (and only) career move he can make: a way of putting himself in play for lesser national office—Vice President, maybe, or head of the Environmental Protection Agency—raising money for unspecified future ambitions, or simply warding off political irrelevance.

But Mr. Pataki—who has tried his hand at national-policy speeches in the past, with limited success—seems to feel that his current national tour needs no particular explanation. Indeed, he has yet to provide even a hint as to what he’s actually up to.

Asked in the phone interview when he might decide whether or not he’s actually running, Mr. Pataki said, “Certainly not this year.” Rather, he’s spending his time stumping for other Republicans.

“I don’t think anyone doesn’t understand that this is gonna be a tough year, and I’m going to do my best to try to help them win, whether it’s here in New York or in Iowa or in California,” he said, adding that he was attending a campaign event for State Attorney General candidate Jeanine Pirro that evening, and was “setting up an event” for Republican gubernatorial candidate John Faso. “Certainly, post-November, I’ll make a decision as to what the next step might be.”

When asked whether he’d noticed a difference in terms of the way that he’s received in places like Iowa versus his reception in New York these days—his trip was announced in a local Associated Press story with the headline, “Pataki Off on Latest Political Foray; Dems Scoff”—the Governor paused. “No, I don’t see a difference, because strange as it might seem, people respond very positively in New York,” he said. “And last week I was all over New York State doing various events, as is generally the case. It was very uplifting and I enjoyed it very much.”

But it is inarguably in places far away from New York—geographically and culturally—that Mr. Pataki’s national ambitions have been given the most respectful consideration.

Take Iowa, a state that Mr. Pataki has quietly visited several times in the last year alone.

“I was impressed,” said David Yepsen, the Des Moines Register’s authoritative political columnist, who tracked the Governor on some of his recent swings through Iowa. Mr. Yepsen said that politicians from large states often blow through farm country with their big-city airs and entourages, without realizing that they have to modify their campaign styles for the more intimate setting. But he thought that Mr. Pataki—whose family used to raise and sell fruits and vegetables on a 12-acre farm in Peekskill—grasped the difference, comparing him favorably in that regard to Mr. Giuliani.

“I think he understands this is a retail proposition. In caucus fights, it’s one on one, it’s retail, it’s very small groups of people,” Mr. Yepsen said. “He’s also got some good people working for him here, people who know the lay of the land. He’s been spending time here, which is important. Don’t dismiss what he’s doing out here.”

Mr. Pataki, certainly, seemed sincere—if simultaneously safe and vague—while addressing his itinerant tendencies with a small handful of reporters after his speech in Washington.

“It’s been very good,” he said in response to a question about how his reception has been in places like Iowa. “I’ve enjoyed having the chance to meet people and hear about the things that affect their lives.”

He said that he was able to “do some events to help candidates from my party,” and described the Lexington fire-truck ceremony as “emotional” and “really touching.” And he said that he would be returning to Iowa soon to help with some of the “hotter” Congressional races: “I’m looking forward to it,” he said, before his people bustled him into the elevator and out the door.

But his speech to the Washington press corps was another thing entirely. Could a President Pataki make good copy? Could a Pataki campaign possibly be worth the time to cover?

The timing of the presentation was fortuitous, coming on the same day BP announced that the Alaska oil pipeline had to be shut down after springing a leak, sending crude-oil prices to $77 a barrel. Not that Mr. Pataki altered his script to make mention of it. Rather, after polite applause, he roused his hulking frame and curled himself over the podium.

“Energy dependence is a threat to our freedom,” he began darkly, with the touch of an odd, leftover South Carolina drawl to his voice. Over the course of the next 30 minutes, he explained that “it’s time to break free from foreign oil’s dangerous influence once and for all.” He proposed a 10-year “national energy plan” that included tax incentives, the reduction of gasoline use and the creation of a “national center for alternative-fuel technologies,” while making frequent mention of the helpful role that the free market would play in such a project. At times, he strayed into definite Al Gore territory, railing against harmful greenhouse gases in an understated monotone. As he spoke, his forehead creased like a piece of paper.

The most excited he got was when he mentioned Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (whom he described later as “Fidel Castro with oil money,”); the most excited the audience got was when three members of the Transport Workers Union started yelling about the M.T.A. strike and the fact that they still don’t have a contract.

“You can’t even win your own state! How could he be President?” screamed one of them as she was manhandled out the door.

A Consistent Performer

Just a few days earlier, at the premiere of World Trade Center at Manhattan’s Ziegfeld Theater, Mr. Pataki’s propensity for delivering carefully worded sound bites had also been on display.

It was an unpleasantly hot evening, and the atmosphere under the blue tent was frenzied and moist—like a circus staged in a rain forest. Mr. Pataki drifted steadily from one media outlet to another with a sizeable pack of hangers-on—including his security detail, press secretary and Charles Gargano, the head of the Empire State Development Corporation—in tow.

“Everybody has to make their own determination as to when the time is right,” Mr. Pataki intoned, in almost identical form, to CBS News, a British TV network and the local New York papers, speaking of the movie. “I think it’s important that that story be told again to America, and that people remember the courage and the unity that Americans and New Yorkers showed on September 11th.” Beside him was his 21-year-old daughter, who looked slightly stunned, with glossy lips and big eyes, nodding somberly each time her father spoke.

His lines were so perfectly rehearsed that it took a fuchsia-lipped German broadcaster in a white T-shirt—who asked a surprisingly existential-sounding question about the “political context of this movie”—to trip him up.

Der denken [inaudible German] September 11th …, ” Mr. Pataki began awkwardly. “Because this day was—” He paused. “I’m switching into Spanish, I’m sorry,” he said. “Der zichete del … I’m sorry. The story of the firefighters and the heroes is important to tell. I don’t think this is a political story. I think it’s a human story that should be told.” During the long red-carpet procession, Mr. Pataki and his posse posed for some photographers.

One of the cameramen said, “He’s supposed to be the next President of the United States!”

Without a moment’s hesitation, his colleague responded: “That ain’t gonna happen."