Give ‘Em Hell, David

You don’t often read the names of David Paterson and Harry Truman in the same sentence, and for good reason. New York’s governor has developed a reputation as something of a passive, low-key figure since taking the reins in Albany; the man from Independence, Mo., was known for his feisty, in-your-face style of populist politics.

But the crisis in the State Senate apparently has inspired Mr. Paterson to put aside political niceties and bland collegiality. Several days ago, the governor vowed to force New York’s state senators to remain in Albany in a special session until they resolve their infuriating leadership dispute. The governor vowed to keep the Senate in session on weekends, over the Independence Day holiday, and into the heart of summer—for however long it takes for the Senate to get its act together. Them’s fightin’ words. New York’s part-time legislators do not like to hang around Albany in the summertime.

Mr. Paterson’s plan of action is reminiscent of Harry Truman’s brilliant tactic in the summer of 1948 when, as an embattled incumbent, he called the Republican-led 80th Congress into a special session, daring the G.O.P. to pass the legislation it supported in its platform. The Congress did next to nothing, allowing Truman to campaign across the country against the “do-nothing” 80th Congress. The strategy worked.

If Mr. Paterson is hoping to replicate Truman’s success, he is a shrewder man than some of us realize. Polls show that New Yorkers believe the state is headed in the wrong direction, thanks to the Senate impasse. If the governor can put state senators on the defensive, and if he can position himself as the people’s advocate in this absurd dispute, he might well transform himself, as Truman did, from a dead candidate running to an unlikely victor in next year’s statewide elections.

Becoming Harry Truman will require a taste for demagoguery that has never suited Mr. Paterson, perhaps to his credit. But it would be exciting to hear a governor of New York emulate Truman’s winning formula. “I told the truth,” Truman said in 1948, “and they thought it was hell.”

The truth, when strategically employed, still has the capacity to hurt unlovable politicians. Mr. Paterson should take notice.

  Give ‘Em Hell, David