Paterson Wastes His ‘Meet the Press’ Moment

Watching David Paterson play dumb on “Meet the Press” on Sunday called to mind a favorite scene from “The Naked Gun,” when Leslie Nielsen’s Lt. Frank Drebin tries in vain to dissuade shocked passersby from staring at a truly spectacular explosion by shouting: “Nothing to see here! Please disperse! Nothing to see here!”

Instead of simply acknowledging what the whole world can plainly recognize for itself—that the White House wants him out of the governor’s race, immediately—Paterson spent Sunday morning pretending he had no idea what David Gregory was talking about when the “Meet” host asked (and asked and asked and asked) about Barack Obama’s recent intervention in New York politics.

The result was typical when it comes to Paterson. Sort of like his governorship itself, he managed to take a terrific opportunity—the featured-guest slot on the gold standard of Sunday morning shows—and to twist it into a painful exercise in protracted frustration and self-defeating pointlessness.

Gregory began by recalling the great promise with which Paterson’s tenure began 18 months ago and juxtaposing it with the White House’s current effort to force him out. “What happened?” he asked.

Paterson replied that he’d had “confidential conversations” with the White House that he wouldn’t discuss but that “the president has never told me not to run for governor.” Like that means anything. (And more to the point: like Gregory was just going to sit there and let that one go.)

“Let’s be very clear what happened here,” Gregory incredulously countered. “The president’s team and others speaking on their behalf said to you that you should not run. Isn’t that right?”

Paterson would only allow that “there are people who’ve told me not to run. There are lots of people who’ve told me not to run.”

“But the White House specifically said, ‘Don’t run’?”

“I don’t know that,” Paterson replied.

“You don’t know that?! You certainly know you don’t have their support.”

“I'm blind, but I'm not oblivious.  I realize that there are people who don't want me to run.  I've never gotten an explicit indication authorized from the White House that I shouldn't run.”

Gregory went on to point out that Paterson’s own wife, Michelle, even told the press last week that her husband was “stunned” by the White House’s move. So, if they weren’t trying to get you out, what was it that stunned you, Gregory asked.

“Michelle is very protective of me,” said Paterson. “I don't know that I was stunned.  I am not.”

This whole semantic exercise was painful to watch—not so much because it insulted the basic political intelligence of the host and his audience, but because Paterson could easily have turned the line of questioning to his own advantage.

In a way, it was a gift to Paterson when news of the White House’s intervention broke last week. Until then, he’d been hopelessly drifting toward the inevitable moment, probably in the middle of this winter, when he’d be forced to acknowledge reality (at least to himself) and get out of the race.

But the massive coverage of Obama’s move (it helped that he came to town the morning after the story broke)—and the response of New Yorkers, 62 percent of whom told Marist pollsters last week that the president should keep his nose out of their state’s politics—presented the governor with an unexpected opportunity to show resolve and backbone (popular attributes he’s hardly known for) with just about everyone watching.

Instead of trying (hopelessly) to make it seem like Obama doesn’t really want him out, Paterson could have used his “Meet” forum to embrace the fact that he does. While showing proper respect for a president who is, on the whole, quite popular with New Yorkers, he could have laid out a forceful, principled case for why he thinks the president and his team were wrong to throw their weight around.

I love what Barack Obama is doing for our country, Paterson might have said, but I also happen to like what I’m doing for New York. I’ve made hard choices, but I think they’re the right choices. And while I may be down now, I also know New Yorkers are going to give me a fair hearing. It’s too bad the president and those around him won’t do the same.

Or something like that. The point is that Paterson actually has latitude to engage Obama directly on this issue. The public is on his side. By calling the White House out, he’d attract a heap of attention and the story would grow even bigger. And that would be fine, because he’d be making an argument that is already resonating: this is New York’s fight, not Obama’s.

Sure, this would certify Paterson as an enemy of the White House. But what more are they going to do at this point?

Since the story broke last week, Paterson had an opportunity to lead what would be a popular fight—one that, if nothing else, would earn him new respect from New Yorkers who’ve dismissed him as a weak, incompetent accidental governor. And in the last week, he didn’t have a better platform from which to launch such a fight than he got on Sunday.

Instead, though, he played to type, killing the clock on “Meet the Press” with pointless non-denial denials, looking every bit the over-his-head fill-in that New Yorkers have taken him for.