I recall as a teenager reading with much interest about the personal lives of Presidents, and then trying to make sense of their public personas. How did the real man match the public one? President Nixon is a mystery that will never be unraveled though many have fun making the attempt, and President Lincoln is just awe-inspiring. As an adult my somewhat geeky interest has become broader as I find those public servants who wield executive power, be they President or Governor, and then make news-worthy blunders often have a strange personality quirk. The latest such story, though by no means the first one about New York Govenor Paterson, is a classic example of what I mean.
In 21 years in the State Senate, all during a time of Republican domination of that body, Mr. Paterson rarely was described as punctilious or a legislative craftsman. Friends offered that a life spent in the political minority perhaps gave him permission not to take himself too seriously. But he had a disarming sense of humor, and could talk about his profession with an almost out-of-body sense of clarity.
As governor, Mr. Paterson found himself sitting for the first time in the executive chair, wielding real power, but the crown did not rest easy. He proved a confounding political leader, those who worked with him said. He could be inattentive to others, yet acutely sensitive to slights; he could speak eloquently of Albany’s dysfunctions even as he dipped his hands in these same waters. And he picked fights with Democratic and labor chieftains even as he spoke plaintively of his desire to be liked. (“I’m a human being. I’m sensitive,” he told The New York Times in August 2008. “My feelings can be hurt.”)
His political friends watched, wondered and sometimes cringed. His contradictions did not cohere.
“He’s at the worst moment in his career and he’s totally alone,” said State Senator Diane J. Savino, a Staten Island Democrat who was recruited to run by Mr. Paterson. “Instead of asking for advice and counsel, he’s turned to an inner circle that’s gotten smaller and smaller.”
State Senator Eric Adams of Brooklyn said he repeatedly urged the governor to impose order on his staff and assert himself as the state’s most powerful political executive. “No one enjoys seeing him go down this road,” he said, “but his problems are almost self-mutilating.”
Mr. Paterson’s strengths and weaknesses long have been in taut balance.
His tenure as minority leader of the State Senate was notably chaotic, a fact obscured by the Democrats’ success in winning Senate seats during that time. An internal report commissioned by Mr. Paterson himself found that staff workers often had little idea where their boss was, and that he shied from imposing his authority, ruling instead by an ill-defined consensus. “He thrived when staff were fighting, as it took the spotlight off him,” said a former senior aide, who did not want to be identified to protect clients.