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Grasping for unity: Former Gov. Pataki reflects on the divided state of the country

NEW YORK CITY — George Pataki remembers the call. It came from Rudy Giuliani, the mayor of New York, on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001. As rescue crews and medical personnel scrambled to save lives and unravel the horrifying reality of the 9/11 attacks, Giuliani told Gov. Pataki that he had set up a temporary command center in an old police academy building.

Pataki remembers his response, too. He considers it his most important decision that day. “I thought for a second and said, ‘I’ll be right there,’ ” recalled Pataki, who brought his full emergency response team to Giuliani’s command center, where they set up alongside city and federal personnel.

“We had a seamless response,” Pataki said. “I had no doubt the most important thing was for us to act together.”

Working together. It seems so simple, so obvious – and today, in Pataki’s view, a nearly lost concept. Earlier this month, on Sept. 11, I joined the former three-term Republican governor on the 64th floor of One World Trade Center, the skyscraper built adjacent to the 9/11 Memorial, where he had spent his morning consoling family members of people lost in the attacks, and thanking police and firefighters on duty.

Since leaving the governorship in 2006, Pataki, 72, has worked as a lawyer and consultant. His name recognition, especially outside New York, has faded since then, too. In 2015, when Pataki briefly ran for president, he struggled to get media or voter attention in the crowded Republican field and his poll numbers never registered above in the low single digits. That, presumably, was in part a byproduct of choices Pataki made in September 2001. In contrast to Giuliani, who became an international figure while visibly leading New York through the recovery, Pataki willingly stayed in the background.

Former New York Gov. George Pataki meets with with John P. Cahill, who was his chief of staff, at their Manhattan law firm, Norton Rose Fulbright. (Photo by David Handschuh)

In a 45-minute interview, we explored those decisions, as well as Pataki’s take on the state of the country and his mixed opinion on President Trump. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity:

Governor, let’s talk about 9/11. Beyond the attack and the tragedy, my dominating memory is how together we were as a country. Then I think about today, and it doesn’t feel like that.

Pataki: That is the most disappointing thing 16 years later. The sense of unity we all had as Americans, the way in which people came together, from every walk of life. Politics didn’t matter. Race, age, religion, nothing mattered. We were Americans, and we were going to get through that together.

Now, it’s almost the opposite. If a Republican says up, the Democrats say down. If a Democrat says up, the Republicans say down. If people disagree on a political issue, it’s not that they have an honest disagreement and agree to disagree. They get angry at each other. They even don’t like each other. And it’s such nonsense. There’s absolutely no reason why you can’t be friendly and civil.

What happened?

Pataki: It’s hard. I don’t think there’s any one thing that happened. Over time, politics (has become) about power, and about having the majority, and about being able to take care of your constituents, in both parties. As opposed to: The election is over, let’s see what we can do together.

I was a Republican conservative governor with an overwhelmingly Democratic state assembly in an overwhelmingly Democratic state. But we were able to get an enormous amount done because when push came to shove, I was able to work with Democrats to advance the public interest, which is what the goal of politics should be. And it just doesn’t seem that way, not only in Washington. It doesn’t seem that way in Albany. It just doesn’t seem that way in the country, and that is a tragic loss.

A lot of people feel left behind. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders tapped into that during the campaign.

Pataki: There’s no question about that. An enormous percentage of Americans feel the government in Washington does not reflect their interests, and I think they’re right.

I think the idea that we have got to reform Washington dramatically is absolutely right. It’s just become an insular, out-of-touch, self-interest-driven group of people, by and large. There are still a great many members who try and do what they think is right. But the influence of interest groups is far greater than it should be, and I think the American people, from the Trump voters to the Sanders voters, have that same feeling: That the government is not acting in my interests first.

In that sense, then, are those Trump and Sanders movements good for the country?

Pataki: What I think would be a good thing is if we had a leader in this country who looked to bring people together, and yet at the same time, understood the need to dramatically reform Washington.

In the case of Bernie Sanders, the anger his voters were expressing towards Washington was a real and appropriate thing, but I disagree on the solutions that he would have had. In the case of Donald Trump, the anger that his voters were showing towards Washington is valid and a real thing, but I don’t know that he has the experience or the temperament to bring people together to solve those problems while reforming Washington.

I hope so, and as much as I disagree with President Obama philosophically on pretty much everything, I wish that he would have succeeded. And with President Trump, I certainly hope that he’s successful. One of those successes would be in reforming the way Washington operates.

We are about nine months into the Trump administration. What are your thoughts?

Pataki: There’s the policy side, and then there’s the personality side. On the policy side, whether it’s rebuilding military, committing to destroying ISIS, standing with our allies like Israel and not pussyfooting around and making a ridiculous deal with Iran, I think Donald Trump is a vast improvement.

What concerns me is some of the divisive tweeting that seems to undermine the stature of the president. My hope is that as the office, as the impact of the office and the importance of the office grows (on) President Trump’s awareness, that he will seek to be more restrained in his rhetoric and more proactive in a positive way on his policies.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, you willingly worked in the background while Rudy Giuliani was out front and became known as “America’s Mayor.” At the time, did your team ever come to you and essentially say, “Hey Governor, you could do your job well and build name recognition?”

Pataki: One of the things I’m proud of is we did not have a team that thought that way. (They) just wanted to do what was right. I remember thinking, The most disastrous thing that could happen in the face of this horrible attack and this terrible loss would be to see politicians fighting over getting in front of a camera. I made a conscious decision that we were going to work together and that we were going to work together at every single level, and that we weren’t going to have competing press conferences or competing news announcements. We would do it together.

I was in New Hampshire when you announced your run for president. I remember talking to a woman who explained her support of you by saying, “It’s almost the difference between a politician and a president.” She was saying you have the qualities of the latter perhaps more than the former. What do you think it’ll take for someone who has those presidential characteristics to navigate the politics and win?

Pataki: You need the right person. But secondly, and I think this is where the country is really hurting, we need a news media, as opposed to a political media. The media is, in my view, out of control, and they are a significant part of the problem: partisan, presenting one side or presenting the other side. Elevating inflammatory rhetoric because it’s great for ratings.

You have somebody on there who makes a rational, 45-second explanation of how you can reform health care, it won’t get on the air. You get somebody on there saying “Obamacare stinks,” or “The Republicans want to take health care away from my grandmother,” and you get on TV. So you have good-hearted, good-minded political people trying to offer intelligent solutions, but you’re never going to get the press for that.

Gov. John Kasich seemed to be able to get on the TV and talk in some substance. Do you think so?

Pataki: There were good people who were able to do that, but it was overwhelmed by the obsession with ratings. The estimate is Donald Trump got over $1 billion of free media time, and I have no question that’s the case. Compared to the other candidates, many of whom have very good ideas and records, it made it very difficult for the American people to say, “I’m going to weigh this intelligently,” when you only hear one side.

I saw you liked the notion of Kid Rock running for Senate. (In August, Pataki tweeted an article speculating on a possible Senate run in Michigan by the rock singer, with the comment, “Kid Rock is exactly the kind of candidate the GOP needs right now.”)

Pataki (laughing): I believe more non-traditional candidates is a good thing. We have lots of lawyers and lots of business people and lots of doctors. The idea of having people from every walk of life is what America is about. So I am encouraging him to run. I haven’t endorsed him. But I just think the idea of his candidacy is a good thing.

Are you going to run again?

Pataki: I learned early in my career, after having said “never” once, to never say never. But I can tell you I’m enjoying immensely my life now in the private sector. It’s a cliche: People, when they’re hideously disliked in politics, say “I’m not going to do it because I want to spend more time with my family.” Well, I left voluntarily, but I’m enjoying spending more time with my family. I have six grandkids now.

But on the other hand, you look at what’s happening politically, and you just feel the void in leadership that can bring people together, and a desire to move public policy in a better direction. I learned long enough ago to never say never, but I certainly don’t expect that I will.



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