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.
But no one in the media paid much attention to what the memoir still said about Giuliani, whom Pataki characterized as a “very liberal Republican.” Pataki even slammed Giuliani for surreptitiously aiding the early 1994 candidacy of Herb London, who’d run as the Conservative Party candidate in 1990 and was trying to challenge Pataki in a Republican primary or get on the November ballot as a Conservative again, draining votes from Pataki. Noting that London was “far too dogmatic even for the Republican mainstream,” Pataki said Giuliani’s efforts for London “made no sense unless the Cuomo camp was behind the plan, getting its Republican allies to support the one candidate who had no real chance of defeating the governor.”
The book also attributed the mayor’s ultimate “defection” to Cuomo to a desire “to keep the status quo” for his own reasons. That’s why Pataki chose to emphasize again and again on Monday that the supporters gathered around him at the Sheraton were limited to “the team” that backed him in ’94 in a fight for the kind of changes he and Bush now jointly espouse.
The best insight into a governor who, after four and a half years, remains an enigma to most New Yorkers, the memoir implicitly draws a multiplicity of contrasts between Pataki and his mayoral rival: public-school Catholic versus Catholic-school Catholic; Yale versus a Christian Brothers campus; country lawyer who rejected big-city legal culture versus prosecutorial giant of the Manhattan bar; casual Met fan versus Yankee nut; hoopster versus opera club founder; “balanced” lifestyle versus obsessive-compulsive.
When Pataki writes about “the fundamental disconnection” between D’Amato and himself prior to the senator’s 1994 decision to back him, his description of D’Amato could just as easily apply now to Giuliani: “D’Amato gets things done, but his nature is confrontational. He tends to yell. My nature is not at all confrontational. I look for common ground to get around an impasse. D’Amato bludgeons people into submission. I don’t give up too easily myself, but I try to be a bit more subtle about it. We have very different personalities, and very different styles.”
The governor and D’Amato obviously bridged their differences long ago, but the chasm between Pataki and Rudy— extending from Joe DiMaggio’s legacy to Pat Moynihan’s, from the tobacco settlement to the commuter tax— is now shaping the politics and policies of the city and state.
Research: Camila Gamboa, Coco McPherson, Kandea Mosley, Soo-Min Oh, Ron Zapata
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 25, 1999