Paterson Takes an Oath of Leadership, Then a Turn in Spotlight

Published: March 18, 2008; The New York Times
For the first 14 minutes, it was almost as if Henny Youngman were governor.

Or maybe it was more like having Dean Martin preside over a celebrity roast, live, not from a smoky nightclub or a television studio but from the sandstone and Moorish Gothic Assembly chamber in Albany.

Seriously, folks. In his first appearance as the top official of New York State, Gov. David A. Paterson spent more time tossing off one-liners than on the serious subjects he eventually got around to. He seemed to have almost as many laugh lines as applause lines, and he aimed the jokes at everyone from the Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno — the nemesis of his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer — to his stepdaughter.

Drum roll, please.

So how did Mr. Paterson’s drily disarming debut play?

The officials in the Assembly chamber chortled, guffawed and roared — Mr. Bruno wore a big smile. They loved the M.C.-like pacing. They loved the way he dropped his voice an octave to imitate the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver. They loved the way he put exclamation points in his voice and built in a hint of an old-fashioned showbiz crescendo when approaching the end of a sentence, as when he introduced “the one and only Senate Democratic leader, Malcolm A. Smith!”

He reached way down the Albany food chain in his shout outs, introducing Stan Lundine, the lieutenant governor under Mario M. Cuomo. “You know I had to get the lieutenant governors announced,” said Mr. Paterson, who had been one himself just half an hour earlier.

He said he had forgiven Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo “for shooting me with a water gun a few years ago.” The joke he told about Mr. Silver went more or less like this: He and Mr. Silver got together before last year’s State of the State speech. Mr. Paterson was to bang the gavel, and he said Mr. Silver “brought me in here so I didn’t destroy anything in our first year.”

“But in our second year, I said, don’t bother, I know how to do this,” he continued. “And apparently, I was about to bring the gavel down on a glass, like this one.”

He held up the kind of water glass found at lecterns everywhere.

“The speaker, at the last second, grabbed the gavel away from me and told me in his own inimitable way, as only Shelly can” — here Mr. Paterson dropped his voice to sound like Mr. Silver — “I would not allow you to turn the State of the State into a Jewish wedding.”

People were also taken with his recall of middle initials. “Former Governor Hugh L. Carey, everybody,” he said, before putting the N in former Mayor David N. Dinkins, the I in former Mayor Edward I. Koch and the A in Basil A. Paterson — “the former secretary of state of New York, and my father.”

Whatever it was — stand-up comedy, political theater or a combination of the two — it was improvisational. Aides said the laugh lines were not part of the prepared remarks that he had memorized and eventually delivered. But first he introduced the famous faces he could not see — he is totally blind in his left eye and legally blind in his right eye, with 20/400 vision. And he had a line about that, too, after saying that New Yorkers’ “collective talent will bring us to a better period.” “We don’t know the path yet,” he said, “but that’s because we haven’t blazed the trail. And I think you all know that I know a little bit about finding one’s way through the dark.”

It remains to be seen whether the humor reassured an anxious public or left New Yorkers worried that he does not have the gravitas needed to govern.

But some speech-watchers beyond Albany said it was an impressive performance, in part because it was so different from a conventional inaugural speech. Mr. Paterson, as he put it himself, was an “unknown quantity” to many New Yorkers until last week, when Mr. Spitzer resigned in the wake of revelations that his use of a high-priced prostitution ring was under federal investigation.

So Mr. Paterson needed to explain who he is, not just what he hopes to accomplish.

Conan O’Brien used the same strategy when he did his first night on ‘Late Night,’ ” said Robert J. Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. “Like the governor, he said, ‘A lot of you don’t know who I am.’ Neither of them had a perfect debut, but I think the governor’s might have been better than Conan’s.”

Mark Katz, who has written jokes for President Bill Clinton among other political figures, called Mr. Paterson’s speech “remarkable.”

“No one should underestimate him because his humor has an innocent quality,” said Mr. Katz, who heads a consulting company called the Sound Bite Institute. “When you know what you’re doing, humor can be as Machiavellian as anything Machiavelli might have schemed up.”

Just how Machiavellian were some of Mr. Paterson’s laugh lines? He did not let on, and people who had not followed the ins and outs of Albany intrigues might not have gotten the joke when he introduced Thomas J. DiNapoli by calling him “a moderately popular comptroller in this chamber.”

That seemed to be a sly reference to the fight over appointing Mr. DiNapoli, a former assemblyman, to replace Alan G. Hevesi, who resigned after pleading guilty to using state workers to chauffeur his wife. Mr. Spitzer had said Mr. DiNapoli was not qualified for the job. The Assembly overruled him.

Then there was what Mr. Paterson said about Mr. Bruno.

“The other day,” Mr. Paterson began, “we had lunch, and he said, ‘Listen, some evening, if you feel like it, you should come out to the ranch and have dinner with me.’ ”

Mr. Paterson waited a second, then said: “I’ll go. I’m going to take my taster with me.”

The back story, in short, is that Mr. Paterson was a state senator for 23 years, longer than Mr. Bruno has been the majority leader. But Mr. Bruno and Mr. Spitzer became enemies soon after Mr. Spitzer took office — the office Mr. Paterson now holds.

Mr. Paterson’s speech showed “a very human touch, especially after the week that New York and the rest of us have been through,” said Joel Goodman, the founder and director of the Humor Project, a research and consulting organization in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “Paterson showed the human being that he is, and at the same time had a serious message.”



  1. Hey pallies, like how cool to compare Governor Paterson to our Dino….always thought at Dino woulda make a great elected official…best wishes to the new Gov….and keep bein’ Dinofocused….never was, never will be anyone as cool as the King of Cool…oh, to return to the days when Dino walked the earth…

  2. I wish him the best after what happened with Spitzer. I do like the comment about Dean Martin. I think any of us would do well to emulate Dino in our daily lives. He oozed coolness. He could crack a joke and offer some witty banter about anything. Life would be so much more effortless and laid back if we did.

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