In late September 2011, the New York Daily News reported that former New York governor George Pataki had announced a month earlier that he was ending his 2012 presidential campaign “after weeks of speculation that he planned to enter the race.” One question neither posed nor answered by the reporter: were there actually as many as five people outside of Pataki’s family who were speculating about his possible candidacy?
I ask because of some history that has been too easily forgotten. In the fall of 2006, George Pataki began a run for the presidency by opening a campaign office in New Hampshire. By January 2007—more than a year before the New Hampshire primary—Pataki was already declaring that his supporters could feel free to back other Republican candidates for president. Most important, George Pataki never ended his campaign for the 2008 nomination. No press conference. No public statement of withdrawal. He simply faded into the sunset. This wasn’t difficult, since hardly anyone knew he was running and even fewer voters cared.
Four years later, quite remarkably, Pataki once again started making noises about running for the White House. But perhaps this was still the campaign he began in 2006… poking along rather slowly.
I review all this because I go back a long way as a Pataki watcher. I entered Yale as a freshman in the fall of 1965. Pataki was a junior. (Side note: my first year in New Haven included two semesters in a small Spanish class with George W. Bush. As a result, I’m in an elite group of people who can say that I’ve detested Bush FOR MORE THAN 45 YEARS!!!)
Upon arriving at Yale, I joined–and eventually became appalled by–the Yale Political Union. It was a very big deal at Yale, especially for aspiring young politicos. The PU, as some called it, was a rather pretentious debating society where students acted like they were members of the U.S. Senate. The president of the Political Union during my first semester was J. Harvie Wilkinson, III, a conservative Virginian formerly on George W. Bush’s short list for Supreme Court nominations and still on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Wilkinson was followed as president by John Kerry, who already seemed to be running for the White House while at Yale.Pataki was the head of the Conservative Party, the Political Union’s equivalent of the Republican Party. I found his politics awful. And while some conservatives and right-wingers in the Political Union seemed brilliant, that was hardly true of Pataki.
So on that horrific November evening in 1994 when the GOP took control of both houses of Congress and Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House, I felt rather personally violated by the news that George Pataki had become my governor while George W. Bush had been elected governor of Texas. A nightmare from three decades earlier had come back to haunt me!
And here’s my favorite Pataki story. It says it all.
At a typical meeting of the Yale Political Union during my time in New Haven, a resolution would be debated and voted upon by all members. For example: “Resolved: that the United States Congress should pass the proposed Medicare health plan.” Members would speak on both sides of the issue, sometimes joined by prominent alumni. In the end, each resolution would be either affirmed or defeated.
In mid-1994, as Pataki was running to unseat incumbent New York governor Mario Cuomo, the New York Times unearthed an intriguing tale. In the mid-1960s, but before I arrived at Yale, the Political Union sponsored a debate on whether “outside agitators do more harm than good in the civil rights movement.” (Rather charged and biased language, to be sure.)
The defense of civil rights activists was led by the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., the University’s chaplain, a prominent civil rights advocate, and later a crucial figure in the fight against the Vietnam War. Leading the opposition to civil rights activists was the late William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder of the right-wing periodical The National Review. Both were Yale alums.
When it came time for members of the Yale Political Union to rise and cast their votes, George Pataki decided he could not support his hero, Bill Buckley, or stand with all his Republican buddies. “I happened to think that we needed the civil-rights crusades and the demonstrators to break down the state barriers to equality,” Pataki told the New York Times in 2007.
But Pataki couldn’t bring himself to vote with Rev. Coffin. He couldn’t publicly support the civil rights activists. In the moment of truth, Georgie abstained. What a leader!
Don’t lose hope, friends. In 2014 or 2015, George Pataki may once again encourage “speculation” that he will run for the presidency. His is a campaign that never dies.
Bob Lamm has previously published four articles about sexism and anti-Semitism at his famous alma mater in New Haven. He currently teaches at New York University and can be reached at email@example.com.