Lies, Damned Lies, and Campaign Promises

Pataki Spins Houdini Math

In the short term, Pataki has gotten away with his flimflam. He is a sharp and cunning politician. His ploy of staying silent and giving vague responses on touchy subjects like the budget was noted and written about by reporters, but overall the press never did hard analysis on the numbers or explained what they meant for taxpayers. By Election Day, virtually every major paper in the state had endorsed the governor. Reporters—and editorial boards—are supposed to be able to add and subtract.

Ultimately, the fiscal calamity simply didn't strike a chord with the voters. Maybe they were too distracted by the terrorism of 9-11 and their own immediate pocketbook distress from an unstable economy that had made thousands jobless. And maybe they've lowered their expectations of elected officials to near zero.

Beyond all this, state government has always been a maze to the average citizen, with so many of its decisions made behind closed doors and rarely examined by independent overseers.

illustration: Ryan Sanchez

When I write that Pataki used illusion and denial to disguise the budget crisis, I am not suggesting that no governor or legislature ever juggled the figures before to balance the state budget or used gimmicks and one-shot revenues. I covered Albany for five years in the 1960s when Nelson Rockefeller was governor, and those tactics are as common in Albany as fleas on a junkyard dog.

I remember the scene one year, at the annual budget briefing for the press in the rare-art-filled governor's mansion on Eagle Street, when Rockefeller, during his presentation with charts and an easel next to one of Picasso's Guernica tapestries, said he had solved a particularly tricky fiscal problem with an infusion of $75 million. Where in the budget did you get the money from, reporters asked. Nelson smiled and said his budget director, T. Norman Hurd, had discovered the treasure in some obscure fiscal cranny. At which point Charlie Dumas, the AP bureau chief, a skilled reporter who was also incurably puckish, called out to the multimillionaire: "Come on, governor. Where did you find it? Did you send an old suit to the cleaners?"

But Pataki, with his illusionist games, has gone light-years beyond the usual Albany higgery-jiggery. He has created an honest-to-goodness crisis.

Oddly, one opposite of the word magic is tragic. Our alchemist governor has spun his magic with mirrors and doublespeak. The end product is a tragedy. And if any reckoning comes out of this mess, it could bring him down.

Research assistance: Jennifer Snow
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