David Paterson knows things are bad.
On the afternoon of Feb. 19—the day the New York Post published a remarkable editorial urging the governor to bring back Charles O'Byrne, the senior aide that the paper had helped push out after a tax scandal—Paterson was telling reporters that he found the prospect of O'Byrne's return "fascinating."
Asked at an event at the Harvard Club whether he agreed with the premise of the editorial, that his administration was in such disarray that it called for a measure as drastic as the return of a man who was only recently hounded out of office, Mr. Paterson said, "There are a lot of issues that are going on in this state, a lot that need to be addressed. Some of the reaction I think has been a bit out of bounds, but some of it has been fair, and I think that what is most important in a leader is that you recognize that you are as human and as imperfect as even the press that covers you."
(He had just come out of a discussion with Governor Jon Corzine in which he made several remarks about the media.)
By saying that it might be time to bring a dominating character like O'Byrne back to his side to provide focus and discipline to a chaotic administration, Paterson is essentially acknowledging that he has got to do something fast to save his job. O'Byrne would make quite the Republican talking point in a general election, but long-term thinking is a luxury the governor doesn't have right now.
But even in the short term there are drawbacks. By speaking up, Paterson may have further destabilized an already shaky administration.
Paterson's current secretary, William Cunningham, for example, was already widely expected to resign soon.
"He could be on the way out," said one source with knowledge of personnel changes in the administration.
Even if Cunningham ends up sticking around, his best-case scenario, as one Albany lawmaker noted, is diminished influence now that Paterson expressed his willingness to entertain the return of the domineering O'Byrne.
"Why pull the rug out from Cunningham?" asked the lawmaker. "You've irreparably hurt his capacity to do his job now, whether O'Byrne comes back or not."
Still, it wasn't hard to find Democrats happy at the prospect of O'Byrne coming back and restoring discipline and order on the floundering Paterson operation.
"The governor is entitled to surround himself with people that he wants there," said Assemblyman Richard Brodsky. "Charles O'Byrne has great ability."
Paterson's remarks about O'Byrne reflected the thinking in Albany and inside the widely disparate Paterson camp that O'Byrne's return would centralize authority and provide a clear line of communication to the governor, who himself reminded reporters of O'Byrne's competence.
"I'm just going to say that no one doubted that he wasn't doing an excellent job," Paterson said outside the Harvard Club.
But O'Byrne is unlikely to be a panacea for the deep dysfunction in the Paterson administration. Certainly, he'd be coming back to a harsher environment for Paterson than the one he left.
The Post editorial that called for O'Byrne's return also broached a once taboo subject, writing "Paterson's blindness severely constricts his ability to acquire basic information." (Ben Smith said the crossing of that threshold "opens a difficult, complicated discussion" about Paterson's inability to read newspapers and government documents and the enormous sums of time he spends memorizing speeches.)
And Paterson's numbers are way down, and he's losing badly in a hypothetical primary match-up with Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who is earning nothing but positive press at the moment from his investigations of greedy bankers and child predators.
Paterson, according to one source with knowledge of his thinking, is very aware of the problem and is eager to fix it. That he is apparently willing to bring back O'Byrne suggests that he recognizes the need to do so immediately.
UPDATE: And here he is.
—Additional reporting from Albany by Jimmy Vielkind