NYT declares David Paterson the new George W. Bush

Oh hey, I was wrong; this week’s earlier piece about New York Governor David Paterson’s sketchy friend-aide-driver guy wasn’t the major exposé that’s been rumored. It was just the (unfilling) appetizer for today’s piece, “As Campaign Nears, Paterson Seen as Aloof and Distracted.” The piece is a jumble of criticisms of Paterson and non-sequiter responses from the governor that add up, basically, to the idea that Paterson is hands-off in a way that might be damaging. For instance:

Mr. Paterson’s approach to his job differs markedly from that of his predecessor. Mr. Spitzer, when he became governor, promised major change, installed appointees with substantial credentials and took a deep interest in their work, peppering them with e-mailed policy questions in the early-morning hours. Mr. Paterson is less involved with those who run the agencies, and less curious about how they are operating and whether their policies are succeeding, current and former aides say.

Does that sound like familiar criticism? I know I’ve read that somewhere before… oh, it was in the New York Times, during the dark days of January 2001:

Bush is famous for reading only the executive summary of reports, if that. His aides say he does not show interest in details, except occasionally to test their thoroughness. The danger is that he can become simply a spin-processor, passing on the bottom line that each adviser has provided him.

Damning criticism, indeed! Paterson is actually shown to be worse than Bush, in that he’s not only hands-off, he’s sometimes inaccessible, and often (unlike the strictly punctual Bush) doesn’t show up for scheduled events at all. That’s all fair and fascinating criticism, and it would be a great story if the Times had chosen to pursue it a wee bit further by, say, showing in more detail some of these consequences.

Instead, The Times again does what it did in the earlier piece, asking us to read between the lines for a picture of what might really be the problem with Paterson: excessive partying. Though no charges appear directly in the piece suggesting that the governor has been drinking too much or dallying too frequently, there are several defenses of that behavior printed:

“Who cares if he likes to go out and has a couple of drinks; what’s the big deal?” said one friend, the private investigator Richard Dietl, who enjoys a meal with the governor about once a month. “He likes to go out. He likes to see people.”

And, from Paterson himself:

“I resent this sort of, in my opinion, and I’ll be frank with you, kind of profiled way that it appears that all I’m doing is drinking, chasing women, doing drugs.”

Well, the Times is careful to never directly say that Paterson is drinking or chasing women, and it never mentions drugs except in Paterson’s own quote. But that open’s the reader’s mind to the question: Why is this guy defending himself against that charge? What were they asking him? It’s an ingenious way to make a point without making the point, an almost push-polling type of article.

There’s also discussion of the big bills Paterson has rung up at some New York bars and restaurants, billed to his campaign tab: over $300 at Le Cirque and about $1000 over two tabs at the Water Club. The implication seems to be that Paterson is using the governor’s mansion as a way-station on the party express, darting from fancy clubs to the Hamptons to Florida and back, and that he’s using his campaign account — quickly depleting, the article notes — to fund these celebrations. Again, that’s an implication not made explicit.

What is explicit in the article is that Paterson has short hours at the office and has become increasingly dependent on a small cadre of advisors, including the earlier profiled David Johnson, former State Trooper, Clemmie Harris, an his ex-girlfriend, Gabrielle Turner. Turner was appointed deputy director of New York state’s Washington office, despite having what amounts to 2 weeks’ political experience (as a volunteer for Obama ’08) in the last fifteen years.

Not paying attention to the business of the state and supporting the advancement of friends over more qualified appointees is big, damaging stuff. The latter charge seems well-documented here, and the former needs only some evidence of program failure (which has been previously printed in the Times) to shore it up. It is, in fact, enough to carry an entire article, and I’m surprised to see that the discussion of Turner is saved for the end of the story.

The entire piece is constructed to make you wonder exactly what I found myself wondering: Why did the New York Times print this? I don’t mean that in the “but how could you!” way that I think Mr. Paterson’s staff will. I mean, simply, what was the motive? I’m left feeling that there’s more they know but couldn’t confirm. And yet I’m also left feeling that I’ve been manipulated into feeling that way. It’s a very, very strange story.

Is David Paterson a bad governor? I think, likely, yes. I very much doubt his campaign against Andrew Cuomo will be successful. His record is legislatively uneven, and But the Times is running with tabloid-like details at the front of its stories instead of focusing on what should — and usually has been — its core for reporting: hard facts and numbers. They broke the Eliot Spitzer story not thanks to following him around and making guesses about what his receipts might mean, but by actual reporting work. One wonders if the reporters on that story — which include Nicholas Confessore, someone credited with working on the Paterson piece — got a taste of the rush that comes in revealing bad behavior, and are now a little too eager to print.

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