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The Defenestration of Gov. Paterson

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Defenestration of Prague occurred in 1618 when two royal officials were summarily thrown out of some rather high windows and landed, as luck would have it and history recorded it, on a pile of manure. The Defenestration of New York happened just the other day when Barack Obama tossed New York Gov. David Paterson out of a window, landing him not on a pile of manure but on the front page of the New York Times. In its political consequences, this is a distinction without difference.

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The Times story, a deft and lethal leak, explicitly said that the White House had asked Paterson (D) to step aside -- not to seek a full term as governor but to content himself with a graceful exit. This, White House political director Patrick Gaspard pointed out, would avoid the certain political ignominy that was surely to be Paterson's fate. At that moment, I imagine the president's man brandishing polls showing that in virtually all of New York state, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has a higher approval rating.

Pretty quickly, Paterson said he would do no such thing. He remained mum concerning a meeting he reportedly had with Gaspard, in which the phrase "only business" was certainly uttered. It was at this sit-down that Gaspard told Paterson -- according to a Times source -- that the president of the United States wanted him gone. "We want you to stand down," the Times reported Gaspard as saying. "There is no path to success."

In due course, Paterson will do what's required of him. There is simply too much at stake. Rudy Giuliani looms on the horizon, hinting that he will challenge Paterson and wipe the floor with him. It will do Obama no good if New York goes Republican, and it will do the rest of the state's Democrats no good if the top of the ticket can, outside of his immediate family, draw virtually no one to the polls.

Paterson's insufficiencies are legion. Among other things, he can get almost nothing done. He entered office succeeding the disgraced Eliot Spitzer and almost instantly confessed that he and his wife had had extramarital affairs of their own. (He said nothing about their dog.) This refreshing bit of candor must have so appalled the Legislature that it resolved to get nothing accomplished -- and for once, these hacks were as good as their word.

Pretty soon, Paterson was becoming a problem for Obama. He stated his political woes were linked to his race -- and so would be the president's. Obama did not like that at all, and the White House quickly said it disagreed. Paterson had also decided to make Spitzer's political death wish seem banal. In a triumph of political self-mutilation, he alienated both the Kennedys and Obama by entertaining the proposal that Caroline Kennedy would make a dandy replacement for Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Senate -- and in the end awarded the seat to the obscure Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand. When last we checked, it was not Gillibrand who had early on endorsed Obama but Caroline and her uncle Teddy. All of politics is the Balkans. Slights need to be settled.

There is a sad, sweet quality to the life and political career of David Paterson. He is legally blind, a winsome, likable man with a sharp, New Yorky sense of humor. He is a Prince of Harlem, the scion of one of the country's oldest and most storied political organizations. His father, Basil, was a formidable state senator and New York City deputy mayor. The Harlem organization produced the city's only black mayor, David Dinkins, and at the moment boasts the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Charles B. Rangel. It is a mighty organization.

Yet, Obama slapped it down. Some will be tempted to credit such hardball tactics to Chicago and its bare-knuckle politics. That, though, is not the case. Obama -- as opposed to Rahm Emanuel -- is not from Chicago. He is from the Land of Ambition. That is a storied realm where all the posted signs warn, "Don't Get Between Me and What I Want." Obama wants a second term, and neither racial fellowship nor bonhomie nor a touching consideration for the bruised feelings of others will, in the end, make a difference. Paterson had to go.

The Defenestration of New York tells you nothing you did not know about Paterson. But it does tell you something about Obama and a toughness lurking behind that blazing smile. Call the purging of Paterson post-racial politics or just plain politics, but in either case the lesson is clear: When you become a problem for Obama, don't get too close to a window.

cohenr@washpost.com


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