The Paterson Scandal Is Overblown

New York Gov. David Paterson's fall from grace shows America is hopelessly hooked on political flameouts. Lee Siegel on what made Paterson a lousy high.

It’s strange how, at a time when people are asking where the public’s outrage is over this, that, or the other thing, we are becoming outrage addicts. It’s as if recent outsized scandals—Spitzer, Sanford, Edwards—have inured us to scandal to the point where we need greater and more outlandish violations of the public trust in order to satisfy our need for an ever bigger and better outrage-high. Just as the crackheads of yore would do anything for a fix, we will believe anything for a fix. We have become desperately ravening scandal-heads.

So intense is our need for an outrage-fix that we turned innuendo into the instrument of a massive high and drugged ourselves into certainty that Paterson had traduced his office in the most thrilling way.

For weeks, we were subjected to the disorienting hallucination of Governor David Paterson seeming to be enmeshed in the most deliciously immoral behavior when, in fact, no charge of misconduct had even been made against him. Sex in utility closets, serial adultery, wife-swapping! Paterson’s rumored wrongdoings filled our scandal-dens with the smoke of impending outrage, and we sat there waiting for the little glass pipe of exposé to be passed our way.

And then… nothing. The New York Times’ first much-anticipated articles failed to raise even an eyebrow. When the paper finally ran its bombshell late last week, it was like putting the little glass pipe to our lips and inhaling nothing but hot air. The Times’ investigation into the role Paterson might or might not have played in what might or might not have been a coverup of his aide David Johnson’s alleged physical abuse of a woman has yielded bupkus. (Paterson himself has denied any involvement in the coverup; Johnson has yet to comment publicly on the charges against him.) Conscientious and admirable as the Times’ reporting was, the paper’s investigation could not even determine one essential point: Whether the woman Johnson is accused of attacking was called by Paterson after the incident, or whether she called Paterson herself. In a case where wrongdoing turns on the possibility that Paterson tried to intimidate the woman into not pressing charges, who made the call is essential to know. But we don’t know.

Lloyd Grove: Paterson Creates His Own RealityA few days later, as if responding to criticism on that very point, the Times ran another article quoting legal experts who said that it didn’t matter who made the phone call. The very fact, the experts claimed, that Paterson spoke to the woman at all was inappropriate. But, experts to the contrary—who will always tell a reporter what the reporter has skillfully implied he wants to hear—who made the call does matter. It’s the difference between a politician instinctively seizing an opportunity to save his skin by, perhaps, listening carefully for ways to appease, and a politician aggressively imposing his bullying will. It’s the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony.

Speculations, allegations, insinuations. The woman claims she was hounded by Paterson’s state troopers trying to get her to drop her complaint against Johnson, the state troopers say that they were merely trying to “advise” her. Paterson and she talked for one minute, according to her lawyer, the day before the hearing on a final protective order against Johnston, and she didn't show up for the hearing: Was she threatened? Was she bribed and thereby humiliated? Did she receive the bribe she wanted? Nobody has the slightest idea of what really happened between Paterson, the woman, and the state troopers. Yet so intense is our need for an outrage-fix that we turned innuendo into the instrument of a massive high and drugged ourselves into certainty that Paterson had traduced his office in the most thrilling and intolerable way. And—voila! Paterson announces he’s terminating his campaign, and The New York Times has the scalp of a second consecutive New York governor hanging from its belt.

At the very least, Paterson is an absent, distracted, and ineffectual governor, even by contemporary political standards. I would love to see him replaced tomorrow by Andrew Cuomo. And of course we feel we know that if power is there to be abused, it will be abused, and so we feel that, at the very least, something stinks about Paterson’s judgment, if not his conduct. But Johnston’s alleged violence was not Paterson’s violence. And the spectacle of a politician carefully maneuvering to preserve himself—if that’s what Paterson did; yet we have no idea what he did—is hardly Watergate, Client 9, an Argentinian girlfriend, and a secret love-child rolled into one. But rolling it into a single powerful joint is what we’ve done.

I have no sympathy for Paterson. He is clearly not up to serving the people of New York. No, my sympathy is for us pathetic crackheads putting our very jobs in jeopardy by spending the whole day online searching for the next outrage-high. We need intervention and the right kind of program, and we need them fast. Soon we will be sniffing our modems.

Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.