The Paterson story we’ve all been waiting for sucks

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You know that feeling you get when you ask for a pony for Christmas, and instead you get, say, one these? That’s a bit how I — and, I would guess, the chattering class of New York politicos — feel tonight, having read the New York Times’ front-page piece about Governor David Paterson.

See, this piece was supposed to be a whopper. It was supposed to be harder than Jay-Z’s last album, with more cursing and probably more self-congratulations. It was supposed, over the past two weeks, to be The Story that was going to force New York’s inefficient, disorganized governor into becoming the second governor in a row to resign.

Instead, there’s a three-click piece up today about David W. Johnson, Paterson’s long-time driver, who has been “described as Mr. Paterson’s closest confidant, a man with a designated room for his overnight stays in the Executive Mansion, and a broadening role in areas like campaign strategy, government initiatives and the management of the governor’s staff.”

OK, great, except I was pretty much expecting those lines to finish with a flourish like, “rumored to be Mr. Paterson’s illegitimate child” or “implicated in the triple homicide of Mr. Paterson’s last aides.” After weeks of hearing rumors of secret rendezvous in closets and illicit restaurant affairs, we’re getting a story about an aide who sometimes sleeps over in his own, respectable room? Elliot Spitzer: The Sequel, this is not.

Instead, the bullet here is that Johnson apparently has had some rough, and possibly physically rough, break ups with his girlfriends in the past, though the Times chooses to lead with the fact that Johnson, as a teenager, was twice arrested for drug possession and sales.

OK. Drugs are bad, I get it, and kids selling drugs is even worse. But I’m kind of hard pressed to do much more than give a cheer for a guy who has risen from being twice arrested for drug crimes as a teenager in in early-90s Spanish Harlem to being the closest aide of New York’s governor. Isn’t that kind of the new American dream?

So then, the big deal here must be the behavior towards women. And yes, it might be appalling. You can kind of sense that the New York Times wanted to just write, THIS IS APPALLING. Unfortunately, they were unable to do so, because, well, while their impulse as human beings is right on, their work as journalists is, sadly, lacking.

The Times details three times that Johnson has “been involved in altercations with women, two of which led to calls to the police.” Here’s a timeline:

  • October 2009: “The police responded to a complaint of harassment at a Bronx address of a woman involved with him. It is unclear if the altercation was verbal or physical or both, but the case is listed as closed.”
  • 2001: “Mr. Johnson, according to a person who was present, punched a girlfriend outside [then-state Senator Paterson’s] Harlem office. No arrest resulted, and Mr. Johnson, through a spokesman for the governor, said that he never touched the woman, that she had come to the office inappropriately and that she had been asked to leave by others… The woman involved, who insisted on anonymity, said in a recent interview that Mr. Johnson had gotten violent with her in the episode. She said she did not file a formal report, but said she had filed an earlier domestic violence complaint to the police about Mr. Johnson. She declined to offer evidence of that.”

    More on this follows, but basically: another senior aide, Woody Pascal, went on the record with the Times to say that he “interrupted the altercation” between Johnson and the woman and offered her counseling. Deneane Brown, who the governor’s office recommended to the Times as a witness of the event, said she briefly witnessed the fight but didn’t see any violence. “If there had been anything violent, I’m trained in domestic violence, so I would have had a duty to file a report,” she told the Times.

  • 2001: A third incident was mentioned by Governor Paterson in an interview with the Times, where he said he’d heard that Johnson and a girlfriend had had a bad breakup sometime in 2001. “In Mr. Paterson’s description, Mr. Johnson was having a dispute with a woman he was dating, and he visited her home. When he arrived, the police were there and spoke to him.” Johnson told Paterson in 2007, fearing he’d be subject to a background check when Paterson was sworn in as Lieutenant Governor. “‘I asked him, Was there an arrest? ‘No.’ Was there a complaint? ‘No,”” Mr. Paterson recalled. ‘There was nothing. So it just sounded to me like an argument between two people.'”

It is absolutely in my nature as a human being and as a woman to give the benefit of the doubt to the woman who says she had a violent encounter with Mr. Johnson. Yet as someone who writes about news and politics on a daily basis, my skepticism for unnamed sources — particularly those who won’t provide corroborating evidence — is high. Certainly, Johnson’s ex-girlfriend has many compelling reasons not to reveal her name in print: the stigmas surrounding victimhood, for one, and possibly even fear of retribution (though Johnson undoubtedly knows exactly who’s been talking about him). I don’t think her anonymity means that this never happened or that Johnson isn’t a douche-bag of the first order.

But as a piece of reporting, this is just crap. The Times is trying to show a pattern of behavior without anything to go on but the word of one witness against the word of several others. All of the police reports it mentions are either sealed or unavailable. It is unclear throughout where their information on Johnson comes from, and it is, moreover, almost completely unclear what the significance is in regards to David Paterson.

I think the Times’ reporters (and there were six of them involved in this piece: Danny Hakim, William K. Rashbaum, Nicholas Confessore, David Kocieniewski, Serge F. Kovaleski, and Jeremy W. Peters) are trying to build a case that Gov. Paterson has bad judgment. They may be trying to signal that a guy with a sketchy history has a lot of power in Albany. They may even be trying to signal that Paterson is trying to cover for Johnson somehow, though that’s certainly undercut with Paterson being the only source for the mention of the second 2001 incident.

So what else is the point? Mainly, that Johnson is a bad and major influence on Paterson. Here, the piece also fails. There’s an extended section in the middle that is comprised almost completely of strange, neutral quotes about Johnson and how he’s recently been seen to take over — ably — management of many political and even policy-oriented tasks. No one is quoted saying anything blatantly negative about Johnson’s influence in the entire 2,175 word piece. In fact, the entire middle section — which is a between-the-lines indictment of Paterson’s current chaotic cabinet — is headed only by this:

Mr. Johnson’s increasing prominence, and Mr. Paterson’s reliance on him, have worried some veteran aides to the governor, who themselves are trying to assist Mr. Paterson as he faces an enormous fiscal crisis and a daunting election effort. They would not speak by name, but more than four current or former officials expressed concern that Mr. Johnson and another aide, a former state trooper, had become the governor’s innermost circle and were simply not best equipped to help him tackle the multiple challenges facing him.

The piece then charges forward with some stunningly sour-grapes sounding quotes (“We were all quite surprised about D.J. taking more of a policy role… It seems like it was a long way to come in a short period of time for a guy who had been the governor’s wing man.”) and a few on-the-record praise statements of Johnson’s recent work.

Now, given the state of Albany, I’m not sure I’d believe anyone who says there’s a guy doing a good job up there. And you know, after this piece, I certainly came away with a bad taste in my mouth while pronouncing David Johnson’s name. But it’s neither illegal nor even unusual to have a jerk as your closest confidant (see: Morris, Dick), and the New York Times’ story doesn’t seem to be able to prove anything other than that.

This is disappointing.

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