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In his ignored yet moving 1998 autobiography, George Pataki wrote about his days at Yale in the mid '60s with George W. Bush, noting that the gang from the university's political union had Bush pegged from the beginning as presidential timber.
"By junior year, I had myself thinking that if I really hit it big and caught every break in the book I might someday be a congressman. I was alone in this. Nobody ever thought . . . I would get that far. . . . I wasn't confident enough to share my assessment with the others," Pataki wrote, recalling his off-campus talks over beers with a group of Yale friends from Hudson Valley towns like his own Peekskill.
"Even in our private moments, none of us from the Hudson Valley ever dared think of himself as a senator or a governor. That was for the prep school guys, people like John Kerry, who chaired the Liberal Party on campus the semester before I was elected chairman of the Conservative Party. The John Kerrys or the George W. Bushes were the ones who'd one day be running for national office."
Ever the underestimated, Pataki concluded: "Me? I was a spear- carrier. I knew my place."
The Pataki that emerges in his 212-page book is the same one who agonized over his Monday endorsement of Bush because he, perhaps alone, took his own possible race for the presidency in 2000 seriously.
What the book underlined, but few remember, is that Pataki also took himself seriously as a candidate for governor as early as 1990, when as a mere assemblyman he almost ran. He put himself in the 1994 race against Mario Cuomo at a time when the state's two most powerful Republicans, Al D'Amato and Senate Majority Leader Ralph Marino, were opposed to him and actively searching for their own nominee. Similarly, in 1992, he was the first Republican to defeat an unindicted incumbent state senator in a primary in half a century.
"It always pays to reach, to buck the odds," was the theme of his book, "to leave conventional wisdom to the conventional, because in so doing you leave room for hope and possibility."
That was the "enduring lesson" Pataki says was "passed on to me by my father" on the family farm, which was purchased in 1925 by Pataki's grandfather and worked eventually by the governor's parents, nine aunts and uncles, 12 cousins, brother, and himself, all of whom lived in a half dozen different houses dotting the 12-acre property.
Every year, the story goes, Pataki's grandfather Janos, who immigrated from Hungary in 1905, and his father Louis, who ran the farm after Janos's death, planted tomatoes in early April, "a good six to eight weeks before anyone else in the Hudson Valley."
"The thing about tomatoes," the governor wrote, "is that they're especially susceptible to an early killing frost; and in the highlands in April, there is almost always an early killing frost. We all thought it was questionable to work so hard to put the tomatoes in so early year after year, but Dad was stubborn. He was determined that one year the tomatoes would make it through and we would be able to sell them a month ahead of anyone else."
Pataki may have been planting tomatoes early by jumping out so soon for Bush and staging such a massive state party event. If his hope, however, is to position himself for vice president, getting his own claim in ahead of fellow New Yorker Rudy Giuliani, he may be up against odds as tough as those facing his dad's tomatoes.
"Each night I'd anxiously turn on the television to see the overnight weather forecast," Pataki says of his growing-up Aprils. "Inevitably one night would check in clear with lows in the 20s, and I knew the tomatoes would never make it through. My father and I would spend half the night covering every plant with baskets and plastic, hoping that would keep frost from actually forming on the plants. But it just didn't work. The next morning would come and the plants would be dead."
The governor drew repeated parallels in his book between this "mulish ritual," as he calls it, and his own most daring political ventures, even though he's never lost an election and his father's tomatoes never beat a frost. This time, however, the parable could apply. Since Pataki's narrow 52 percent win ranks him nearly last among GOP governors reelected in 1998, and since routinely Democratic New York provided another Yalie, Bill Clinton, with his biggest 1996 margin, the governor is an unlikely Bush running mate.
And if the timing of the Monday announcement the day before a giant Giuliani fundraiser in the same Sheraton ballroom featuring Florida governor and "W." brother Jeb Bush was designed to upstage Rudy and make Pataki the Bush family's No. 1 New Yorker, that, too, may be hard to achieve. It's Giuliani who was hobnobbing overnight at the Bush mansion in Texas recently, and whose service in the last Bush administration may give him a leg up in this two-man contest for the Bush inside track.
Pataki's exclusion of Giuliani, combined with Rick Lazio's Sunday frontal assaults on the mayor as a "reluctant Republican," suggest that the governor is of a mind now to let his long-standing feud with Giuliani rise to the level of mortal combat. Back when the book was released, and Pataki was seeking Giuliani's reelection support, the Daily News reported that the governor had muted his critique of Giuliani's 1994 endorsement of Cuomo, removing galley references to it as "a knife in the back" and "a sucker punch" that "outraged" wife Libby even more than it "stunned" him.
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