When Will They Ever Learn? By Henry J. Stern
Newspapers Criticize Spitzer on Driver's License U-Turn;
Senate, Ethics Aides Setting Perjury Trap for Governor
Day One - Everything Changes
Day 303 - Under Fire
For the past few months, we have been chronicling with great regret the self-inflicted decline of Eliot Spitzer. Time and again we have urged him to change his ways, to treat people gracefully, to consult with others, to tell the truth about TrooperChopperGate, and to set forth a reasonable agenda that can be accomplished, we were pleased at his election last year, and earnestly wish for his success. The challenge we knew he would face was dysfunctional Albany, ruled by Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. He was supposed to slay the dragons, but instead the dragons appear to be laughing as he stumbles.
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Editorials and Columns on Governor’s Words and Deeds
Today three city dailies fired away at the beleaguered governor. The lead editorial, pA24 in today's Times, the newspaper that has been most sympathetic to Spitzer, is titled GOVERNOR SPITZER RETREATS. They begin: "Gov. Eliot Spitzer has confronted the most intense public criticism of his political career -- and caved." The Times editorial concludes with this paragraph:
"Governor Spitzer's pivot from his difficult stand on driver's licenses is a disappointment. The way he swiftly made, and then unmade, this decision is unsettling. It revives questions about whether this rookie governor seeks enough wise counsel and then listens to it. It leaves us wondering whether Mr. Spitzer has the will power to remain focused on his better plans and better instincts in the future."
The New York Post has been bashing the governor for months, so today's two critical editorials on p30 are no surprise. The first, ELIOT DIGS DEEPER... deals with the issue of driver's licenses for illegal aliens. It begins: "Gov. Spitzer remains a bewilderment.
The editorial then makes four bullet points which you can link to.
Their second editorial ...AND STONEWALLS SOME MORE, begins "Gov. Spitzer continues to amaze in other ways as well. Post State Editor Fredric U. Dicker reported yesterday that Spitzer will assert "executive privilege" to stymie the state Public Integrity Commission's probe into that Dirty Tricks scandal.
"That's the effort by top aides to the governor to enlist the State Police in a plot to smear Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno.
"So far, Spitzer has advanced similar claims of privilege in a bid to frustrate both the Senate Investigation Committee and Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's separate probes. ...Spitzer's claims are all the more puzzling, given his talk in August that he'd be "happy" to testify in a formal investigation.
"I'm happy to, going to, look forward to it," the governor said back then. "If they call me, I'd love to and even if they don’t, I'd love to send them my statement just because this needs to be clarified and made perfectly clear.' ... But instead of providing more openness, the governor inserts yet another brick in the stonewall." (We comment: mixed metaphor, valid point.)
The most serious of the day's assaults, however, comes from someone who has defended the governor in the past from critics like Michael Goodwin, his colleague at The News.
Bill Hammond writes on p27, the op-ed page of the Daily News, SPITZER IS JUST BEYOND BELIEF. The headline has a double meaning. 1) one cannot believe what he is saying. 2 one cannot believe that he is saying it. We strongly recommend that you link to Hammond's column. His lede is remarkable in its severity:
"New School President and former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb) once described Bill Clinton as 'an unusually good liar.' Well, Gov. Spitzer is an unusually bad one.
"The hedges, half-truths and howlers Spitzer is spouting to explain his U-turn on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants are fooling no one -- except maybe the governor himself.
"The truth of the matter is that Spitzer caved, big-time, to overwhelming popular opposition….
It's a defensible compromise, similar to what this column recommended last week. ....
But Spitzer needs to be honest in defending his course correction. Instead, he digs himself deeper into a hole.
"First, he absurdly refuses to admit that his new position is a compromise, let alone a flip-flop….
“Fibs big and small are nothing new for this governor. What my colleague Michael Goodwin calls Spitzer’s ‘shaky relationship with the truth’ goes back at least to his run for attorney general in 1994, when he skirted the law to accept millions in campaign loans from his father and lied to cover that up.”
Hammond 's last two paragraphs: "The worst thing is that Spitzer seems to buy his own line. Asked last week about gridlock in Albany, widely viewed as the worst ever, Spitzer said, 'Things are moving ahead in a spectacular manner.'
The column concludes on an ironic note: "If you say so, governor."
What We Think About an Underlying Problem:
On July 24, we wrote; SPITZER IS BELEAGUERED AS BRUNO'S CHICKENS COME HOME TO ROOST, COURTESY OF A. CUOMO. That was three months ago.
Our concluding line: "To put it even more briefly, Repent, before it is too late."
On July 27, we wrote: Advice to Governor Spitzer: ALL WE ARE SAYING IS GIVE TRUTH A CHANCE. "The governor didn't take the advice we offered two days ago. In a piece published in Tuesday's Sun, we concluded by calling on Mr. Spitzer to "repent, before it is too late. Instead, he went to the editorial board of the Daily News with a limited denial that seemed calculated to avoid the perjury trap. The problem is, not one person in a hundred believes that he is telling the truth."
We follow Rule 28A "Always tell the truth when you can." Mayor Koch defines his exceptions to the rule, not telling people they have cancer, and not telling the world why someone was fired. Mayor Bloomberg cites the rule affirmatively, emphasizing its positive side. Governor Spitzer should follow the rule, or face a loss of credibility which may become Bushian.
The irony here is that the Bruno brouhaha did not involve illegal conduct. Bruno used a loophole in the rules to fly on the state plane, essentially doing politics but with a fig leaf of public business. Spitzer had enabled him to do so by restoring Bruno's access after Pataki had grounded him. There was nothing wrong with checking up to see how the state plane was being used or misused, and who could do it better than the presumably impartial state police.
Darren Dopp did not have the imagination or the courage to conceive of and implement such a scheme, and was wise enough after eight years not to have acted without his master's approval. By punishing him and sparing the Secretary to the Governor, Richard Baum, Spitzer drew the line of responsibility at a boundary where it obviously did not belong. The theory that Dopp would do this without Baum's consent is beyond belief, and the thought that Baum failing to advise Spitzer is as plausible as Haldeman and Erlichman not talking to Nixon about Watergate back in 1973.
If nothing else, Watergate is the Mother of all Gates, including TrooperChopperGate.
Watergate, however, involved a real crime and the political need to cover it up. The crime was the the burglary of Democratic headquarters in June 1972, for which people were arrested.. There was no crime in inquiring about Bruno's travel. There was no reason to conceal the inquiries except the desire to avoid criticism or embarrassment. In politics, criticism is one of the antecedents to the pronoun in Rule 23-T “It comes with the territory.”
The closest historical example of this conduct in New York State involved Assembly Majority Leader Albert H. Blumenthal. A highly-regarded West Side reformer, Blumenthal ran for mayor in 1973. He lost the Democratic primary to Abe Beame, but ran well on the Liberal Party line. Maybe not that well, but well enough in Manhattan to elect me to the City Council on the Liberal line, with the indispensable help of the late Robert F. Wagner, Jr., (1944-93), the best public servant of his generation.
Blumenthal got into big trouble because, when he was asked, he repeatedly denied that he had attended a meeting with the owner of a number of nursing homes. At the time, the homes, which received substantial State funds under Medicare, were under investigation by a committee headed by Assemblyman Andrew Stein.
A number of other people were at the meeting, and they testified that Blumenthal was also present. It was not a crime simply to attend the meeting. But the Assemblyman persisted in his denials and eventually found himself facing a perjury charge. That ended his once-promising political career in 1976.
Spitzer is now trapped in a similar but not identical situation because of his allegedly false denials of an allegation that he had knowledge of non-criminal conduct by others. While checking on Senator Bruno's use or misuse of a state plane is not a crime, perjury is. The governor has probably not yet committed perjury, but his enemies in the Senate and some of the more fastidious appointees on the Public Integrity Commission are trying to put him in a position where he must either lie under oath or recant his story.
It is ironic that a man who made his reputation as an exceptionally vigorous prosecutor of white collar misconduct should be tormented in this manner by people, some of whom have enriched themselves personally through the public offices they hold, and others who are far less high-minded than the governor.
In one sense, it is the inmates who are now running the asylum. But that is what happens when the warden, or the governor, as he is called in Britain, slips and fails to maintain control. In this plight, the governor is making new unrelated errors by pandering to the left, failing to consult his remaining allies, and then distorting his capitulation in a manner beyond credence.
The joke now widely told is that the old regime consisted of three men in a room, but that under the new regime you can't even get the three men into a room. We want the governor to succeed and the state to move forward. There are many matters on which reasonable people can agree and unite to form majorities. Unfortunately, they cannot do this if they are not speaking to each other. Perhaps a State Psychiatrist would be a useful public official. But you would still have to get the patients to come to the office.
The drama, such as it is, will continue to unfold. We close by quoting the last line of Pete Seeger's plaintive song, recorded by the Kingston Trio in 1961, "Where have all the flowers gone?" The song concludes: "When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?"
The archival works of Henry J. Stern, The New York Civic, is available for your perusal online at the NYCivic.org Website.