A Big-State Governor With Little Grasp of National Affairs

If New York Republican Gov. George Pataki had any hopes of running for president, they may have been dashed simply by coming to a Monitor luncheon the other day.

Don't blame it on us. We were most happy to have him drop by. Any New York governor is a possible presidential candidate. Both Roosevelts were governors of that state. So were Dewey, Harriman, Rockefeller, and, lest we forget, Cuomo.

So when we heard, via a phone call from the governor's Washington office, that he would like to meet with us - well, we thought that was just fine. It was obvious that the governor, or those around him, had decided that Mr. Pataki was ready to show his stuff to the national political press, perhaps as a first step toward running for president. Anyway, he asked us; we didn't ask him.

And this tall, friendly fellow really didn't say anything damaging to his career. As one reporter described it: "He didn't do an Ed Rollins." He was referring to how Mr. Rollins once bragged to our group how the Republicans had spent money to repress the black vote in a New Jersey senatorial race. Rollins later recanted. But it was a lasting career-marring incident.

Pataki didn't hurt himself politically by what he said, but, rather, by what he didn't say. He showed himself to be woefully ignorant of national affairs - or was he simply expressing a lack of knowledge in order to avoid controversy? In any event, he came off as a big-state governor who was not at all prepared for higher office.

At least a score of questions relating to national policy issues - including the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill - drew little or no informative response from Pataki. At one point, he explained his apparent ignorance by saying, "I'm sure you're used to having federal officials here. I'm not a federal official."

So it was only natural that a reporter would ask - not nastily, but a bit joshingly - "If you decide to run for president, aren't you going to have to spend a little time catching up on some of the national issues?" Pataki responded, dead-pan: "Oh, I think I can probably fake it." When no one laughed, he added: "Since we're on the record, that was a joke."

As Pataki entered the Carlton Hotel that morning to begin our meeting, he said he had noted that former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo had been a rather frequent guest of our group. From this I concluded that this governor felt he merited the Washington press attention given to Cuomo. I told him we'd love to have him sit around our table whenever he came to Washington.

I said this, figuring that here was an emerging presidential candidate. But I doubt he emerged very much at the luncheon.

Mr. Cuomo is, of course, a hard act to follow. He quickly became "Mr. Democrat" by a rousing speech he delivered at the 1984 convention. (In a way, it was like "The Speech" that pushed Ronald Reagan into prominence.) From that moment on, and for years afterward, Cuomo became the leader most Democrats wanted to run for president. So, when Cuomo met with our group, he came as a political celebrity.

Pataki, on the other hand, remains pretty much an unknown. I'm told people in his own state really don't know him very well. So this governor was really introducing himself to the national press and thereby to the nation.

I found him pleasant and likable. He simply didn't sound very informed. Come again, Governor, but this time come prepared. I think you have it in you to impress us the next time around.

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