Making a difference


Ashley Weinberg, a psychologist at the University of Salford who has interviewed dozens of former members of the British Parliament about why they liked their jobs, says that the phrase “being at the center of things” kept coming up. That yearning doesn’t require convictions. “You’re sensing things happening around you,” Weinberg says. “Which is quite different from whether you want specificthings to happen around you.”

That’s from this interesting article about George Pataki, and why a longshot guy would run for president.

MANY CANDIDATESWITH no chance of victory run for president because of conviction. Like, say, Ron Paul in 2012 or Bernie Sanders today, they have a set of issues they passionately want to advance.

This does not, as far as I can tell, apply to George Pataki. As Jonah Goldberg put it in a column last month, Pataki seems to be “pretending to have core convictions just so he can run.” Even the Pataki website motto—”People over politics”—suggests a desire to avoid serious thought. And such an impression is nothing new. As Pataki’s third term as governor of New York was winding down in 2005 and 2006, The New York Sun wrote that “one looks in vain to discern any principle or idea that Mr. Pataki stands for consistently.” Columnist Deroy Murdoch wrote in National Review that Pataki was “a politician of breathtaking mediocrity” whose “lack of competence, charisma, and character composes a sickening trifecta.” Kindest was The New York Times, which complained that under Pataki “reform was a talking point, not a doing point,” while nonetheless conceding that, overall, “New Yorkers are well aware that it is possible to do worse.”

Another common explanation for why people choose to run doomed presidential campaigns is that it raises the odds of getting a Cabinet post. Perhaps Pataki wishes to be secretary of Agriculture? But that’s unlikely. While steering a federal department is prestigious, the work is hard. Which, I’m afraid, brings us to another harsh point made by many observers of Albany: that Pataki is not only light on convictions but also disinclined to exertion. “The consensus was he was a lazy guy,” says George Marlin, a leader of New York’s Conservative Party, who was appointed by Pataki to head the Port Authority but later became a prominent critic of the governor. “Energy was not his strong suit.”

In 2006, New York Post state editor Fredric Dicker described Pataki’s administration as one “marked by a torpidity unprecedented in modern times” and estimated, based on testimony from sources in Albany, that Pataki averaged about 15 hours of work per week. Meanwhile, The New York Observer saw a “legacy of laziness, mediocrity and pervasive neglect of the public interest.” The 15-hour-a-week claim seems improbable, of course, and Pataki’s spokesperson David Catalfamo calls it “ludicrous,” saying no one lazy could get elected three times, enact numerous changes, or steer the state through the aftermath of September 11. But it’s fair to say that those who praise Pataki tend to mention intelligence or analytical power rather than midnight oil.


It reminded me of seeing Rahm Emanuel once on Charlie Rose.  Asked why he’d wanted to run for Congress, he said “to make a difference.”  Charlie nodded.  Humans are obsessed with “making a difference” in general, but (duh) not all difference is good.

It seems, when you read about politics, that a lot of people go into it to sort of pretend to others and maybe to themselves to be doing something, without necessarily figuring out what they should be doing.  


Governor William Weld and Senator John Kerry sang together in 1997 during the St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast. Michael Robinson-Chavez/Globe Staff/File 1997

A guy who seemed to be a great case study in this when I was growing up reading the newspaper was Bill Weld, Governor of Massachusetts, who, it seemed pretty clear, basically got bored of the job before he was out of office.  How about this, from a 2004 James Fallows article previewing Bush-Kerry debates.  Fallows is talking about when Weld and Kerry debated during the 1996 campaign for Senate

But they differed in a crucial way. Kerry tried harder. His tone was more appropriate to a TV debate (Kerry was understated and almost languid, Weld strangely blustering). He was quicker to turn each answer into an attack. And he more clearly figured out the theme that would be troublesome for his opponent, as he hammered home the idea that Weld was a comrade of Newt Gingrich and the national Republican Party—a kiss of death in Massachusetts. (Perhaps illustrating the truism that aristocrats don’t sweat off the squash court, on the day of the first debate Weld was worrying about a chess match against a journalist. “I would advise the President not to engage in any chess games by mail while engaged in debates with Senator Kerry,” Weld told me. “I was studying the chess game in my office and also preparing for the debate that night—and I made just a little bit of a mistake and lost a pawn. And I really hated losing that pawn.”)

Obviously he’s being a bit of a showoff, WASPy understatement etc., but man.  Everything’s just an amusing game to this guy.  From Weld’s wikipedia page:

In July 1997, Weld was nominated to become United States Ambassador to Mexico by President Bill Clinton. His nomination stalled after Senate Foreign Relations committee Chairman Jesse Helms refused to hold a hearing on the nomination, effectively blocking it. … This refusal to hold hearings was also rumored to be at the request of former United States Attorney General and friend of Helms, Edwin Meese. Meese had a long-standing grudge against Weld stemming from Weld’s investigation of Meese during the Iran-Contra affair. Weld publicly criticised Helms, which the White House discouraged him from doing, but Weld relished the opportunity, saying: “It feels like being in a campaign. I feel newly energized. I love to stir up the pot. I seem to click on more cylinders when the pot is stirred up.”

Very human, I guess.  But perhaps either unsettling or amusingly absurd to think on how much of history might be driven by just people’s desire to stir the pot and click their cylinders.  Boredom, in other words.

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