“He that blows the coals in quarrels that he has nothing to do with, has no right to complain if the sparks fly in his face.” – Benjamin Franklin
We hate to admit it, but local politics still carries the cigar odors and whiskey stains of generations past.
In 1868, the Democratic National Convention was held in the New York Democratic Party’s extravagant new building on 14th Street—Tammany Hall. Tammany Hall was also the name of a fraternal society and political machine that dominated Democratic politics in New York City from the early 1800s to the 1960s. The Hall itself was built with ill-gotten gains from extorting contracts to build the city’s new courthouse—the same place where New York’s Department of Education is housed.
William Tweed, then boss of Tammany Hall, basically summoned the regional bosses to the Hall, ushered them into a room, and closed the door. They left with their presidential candidate, Horatio Seymour, and that was that. Such was the politics of the 19th Century—backroom deals, stuffing of pockets, and treacherous double-dealing.
Sometimes those old habits die hard.
As much as our current President advocates bipartisanship and a return to principled government, the bare-knuckle brawls of the local ward heelers are never far from his mind.
Such was the case on Monday, when Barack Obama culminated weeks of machinations to pressure the widely unpopular governor of New York, David Paterson, from running in the 2010 gubernatorial election. En route to a speech on the economy in Troy, New York, Obama gave Paterson a chilly reception at the local airport, whispering words in Dave’s ears that seemed to knock him senseless.
He then met with state Democratic leaders behind closed doors. Paterson was not invited. Yet what happened at the speech made me cringe.
At the speech at Troy Community College, Obama lavished praise on New York’s Attorney General—and potential 2010 candidate—Andrew Cuomo, saluting and giving praises to the presumptive candidate to the cheers of the honchos present. It was almost like a coronation, and it happened in front of the crestfallen governor.
This display, I’m sorry to say, was petty, vulgar, tasteless and a stain on Obama’s high office.
There is no doubt that the chief executive has often found itself embroiled in local politics, particularly with midterm elections around the corner. Such was this case, where New York’s gubernatorial seat was up for grabs. He may even need to ruffle a few feathers in the smoke-filled room to make sure his demands are met.
But insulting a sitting governor in public is an unforgivable sin and a shameful act.
No matter what the dispute, no matter how contentious the politics, the institutions of power demand respect. I don’t agree with David Paterson. I often don’t agree with Barack Obama. Yet both are worthy of my respect because of the offices they hold.
David Paterson, like it or not, is the governor of the State of New York. Andrew Cuomo is the Attorney General. David outranks him. Period. End of discussion. Paterson’s snub offends not only his person, but the state as a whole. Woe to any other state of the Union that dares defy Obama’s plans.
Barack Obama’s actions are even more insulting given his reputation and vision for government. In an age where transparency, legality and institutional order are necessary, Obama has reverted to the arbitrary, often brutal tactics of Chicago bosses and Tammany ward heelers.
These are not the actions of a President of the United States. These are the acts of William Tweed, Richard Croker, James Michael Curley, Tom Pendergast, Edwin Edwards, and Richard Daley—bosses whose actions forever haunt our democratic process.
Regardless of your opinion on any of the principals in this affair, the office of the Presidency is not an ax used to decapitate dead weight in local elections. It is a national bulwark that must transcend the guttural minutia of local politics.
Mr. President, please leave the glad-handing and the ballot-stuffing to the ward bosses. You’re too important to be mixed up in this mess.