Sense of Humor Is Paterson’s Secret Weapon
It is a campaign ad that was never broadcast, shelved after disputes among consultants about whether it was too flip. The moody spot features gentle piano music and David A. Paterson, candidate for lieutenant governor, waxing rhapsodic about the state’s future.
“I see a New York State with property taxes under control, school funding up and class sizes down, a New York where our kids have stopped moving out and begun moving back,” he says.
Then Mr. Paterson, who is legally blind, looks into camera with a hint of a mischievous grin and says, deadpan, “And if you say you can’t see all that, well, you’re blind.”
The ad captures what Mr. Paterson’s friends say is one of his most distinguishing characteristics: his irreverent sense of humor. His timing is sharp, his impressions, from President Bush to Congressman Charles B. Rangel, are dead-on, and his self-deprecation is disarming.
Now Mr. Paterson, thrust from obscurity into one of the most visible governorships in the country, is trying to gain the public’s confidence as he confronts the most serious test of his five-month-old administration: a $6.4 billion budget gap and a confrontation with the Legislature over how to close it. Yet he shows no signs of abandoning his wisecracking. In fact, Mr. Paterson and his allies see his humor as an antidote to the kind of tensions that build up during a political crisis.
During a recent speech about New York’s fiscal woes at the National Press Club in Washington, Mr. Paterson made reference to the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover and the oil crisis of the 1970s. But he also worked in allusions to 1960s TV shows, and a crack about Eliot Spitzer’s reported rendezvous with a prostitute.
Asked about high oil prices, Mr. Paterson explained that he opposed more domestic drilling, saying, “Remember in ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ when you’re shootin’ for some food, and up from the ground came some bubbling crude? That show went off, and so did that idea.”
To a question about what lessons he had drawn from the scandal that brought down his predecessor, who was caught on a wiretap arranging to meet a prostitute in a Washington hotel, he responded, “Be careful when you come to Washington.”
“That’s him. He cannot repress that sense of humor,” said Randy Credico, a political comedian and friend of Mr. Paterson’s for about a decade. “It’s hard for him to go onstage, get in front of a microphone and not tell jokes. It’s in him.”
After the speech, Mr. Paterson said in an interview he hoped humor could help people absorb his message about the fragility of New York’s economy. “You have the choice just to be Mr. Gloom, or to lay out the path and make it clear we can return,” he said. “I don’t want to alarm people, and I don’t want to send anyone into a panic.”
His allies in Albany say he understands he has to strike a balance.
“I think he disarms people by being funny and glib,” said Eric T. Schneiderman, a Democratic state senator from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “He’s the governor, after all. Humor works, but no one wants the governor to be a clown.”
The Democratic leader of the State Senate, Malcolm A. Smith, said: “A mistake people make with him is they think that humor is a sign of weakness or even a sign of someone who is not serious. And I believe that people are finding that to be not true. Don’t assume because he laughs and tells jokes he’s a pushover.”
Many politicians’ jokes draw polite laughter simply because of who they are. But people who have regularly seen Mr. Paterson speak said that the governor stands out because he is genuinely funny.
“He’s got incredible timing,” said Mr. Credico, who said he once lured Mr. Paterson onstage during his weekly comedy show on the East Side. He said Mr. Paterson did a 15-minute set and the audience loved it. “That’s why you like listening to the guy. A lot of people like a guy who isn’t going by the script.”
The governor’s comic sensibility is a result, in part, of the loneliness he felt as a child, Mr. Paterson said in another interview. He lost most of his sight as an infant (he is totally blind in his left eye and has limited vision in his right). He was acutely aware that he was different from other children, and that some people were uneasy around him.
“During his formative years as a teenager, he was not the most popular kid,” said Michael Jones-Bey, a friend of many years who worked for Mr. Paterson when the governor was a state senator. “Many of the most brilliant comics have gone through some adversity, and Paterson had his own share of challenges in his life.”
Mr. Paterson said he realized early on that laughing — whether it was at the Harlem Globetrotters’ antic performances or listening to Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” — was a way to ease his sense of isolation.
He remembered that as a child he would laugh along with his father at President John F. Kennedy’s humorous responses to reporters during televised news conferences, though he admits that he was too young to really understand the jokes.
“I think people who have a good sense of humor do have in them a little bit of loneliness,” he said. “When I was younger I was certainly that way. So I think I used humor to entertain myself. That was my way of enjoying time, my way of finding the frivolity in situations.”
And he learned that if he turned his humor on himself, he could put other children at ease.
“I always got that new groups of people were uncomfortable having me in the room,” he said. “And I think that was my way of trying to relate to them. It was easier than saying, ‘Hi. I’m David Paterson, and I’m legally blind.’ ”
Even today he jokes more about his blindness than anything else. During a dinner this spring where Mr. Paterson and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg were being honored, one of the speakers introducing them remarked about the importance of “visionary” leadership. Mr. Paterson turned to Mr. Bloomberg and said, “Well, he must be talking about you.”
Debra Budick, an optometrist who works with Lighthouse International, the Manhattan-based nonprofit organization that provides assistance to the blind, said the governor’s approach is typical of many who have impaired vision. “They like to make people laugh because they can hear a laugh,” Ms. Budick said. “They can’t connect with you by eye contact, so if they can get you to laugh, they can hear the response and connect with you that way.”
Of course, not every joke of Mr. Paterson’s lands well. This month in Albany, at the announcement of a new development project by I.B.M., he said he wanted to invite the I.B.M. executive on hand back to his office for pie. Then he clarified: “The pi I’m talking about is 3.14159.”
But misfires like that are rare. Nowhere did Mr. Paterson make a bigger show of using humor to cut tension than during his swearing in as governor in March. Almost half of his 20-minute speech was devoted to humorous anecdotes about fellow lawmakers and his family and a spot-on impression of Sheldon Silver, the State Assembly speaker.
“It hit me that people in this room are tense,” he said, adding that he knew it was a roll of the dice when he started in on his impression of Mr. Silver. “And then I got that huge response and found out that I was fine.”
And when his timing is on, he has been known to leave crowds in hysterics. At one press conference shortly after Mr. Spitzer said he would resign, a reporter asked Mr. Paterson whether he, like the former governor, had ever patronized a prostitute.
Mr. Paterson replied without missing a beat, “Only the lobbyists,” and walked away from the lectern, leaving his audience on a high note, as any good comedian would.