The Psychology of the Impossible Campaign: An Investigation Featuring George Pataki

Why do people run for president even though they cannot win? And how should we the voters feel about them? A psychological investigation featuring George Pataki.

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T.A. Frank
July 24, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

This in­quiry in­to a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate with no chance of win­ning be­gins with an ad­mit­tedly in­sult­ing premise: that its sub­ject, who has tech­nic­ally laid out his reas­ons for seek­ing the White House, is run­ning for reas­ons un­known. But I’m not alone in be­ing baffled by the can­did­acy of George Elmer Pa­taki. (His middle name is em­ployed mainly by his de­tract­ors, be­cause it is Elmer.) As Chris Cil­lizza wrote sev­er­al months ago in The Wash­ing­ton Post: “Wait. Why is George Pa­taki run­ning for pres­id­ent?” If we had a good an­swer to this ques­tion, wouldn’t we be wiser — not just about George Pa­taki but about the psy­cho­logy of all politi­cians? Thus began my quest.

Pa­taki made his entry in­to the race of­fi­cial on a Thursday morn­ing, May 28, in the town hall of Ex­eter, New Hamp­shire. It was a hot day. Every­one was sweat­ing, wo­men were fan­ning them­selves, and there was no air-con­di­tion­ing. In con­trast to the cam­paign launch in 2007 of Barack Obama, which brought a stand­ing out­door crowd of roughly 15,000, the cam­paign launch of George Pa­taki brought a seated in­door crowd of roughly 240, in­clud­ing about 40 mem­bers of the press.

Sit­ting to one side of Pa­taki were his fam­ily: wife Libby, daugh­ters Emily and Al­lis­on, sons Owen and Teddy, both of whom have served in the mil­it­ary (in Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq, re­spect­ively), broth­er Louis, and as­sor­ted in-laws and grandkids. In the front row, dir­ectly across from Pa­taki’s po­di­um, sat six men in kip­pahs. One was Her­man Fried­man, a cam­paign bund­ler and, ac­cord­ing to his web­site, “En­tre­pren­eur & Vis­ion­ary.” An­oth­er was Ben Landa, head of a nurs­ing-home em­pire. Near these men, in the front row but one sec­tion over, was a doc­tor named Ra­mon Tall­aj, a former health of­fi­cial in the Domin­ic­an Re­pub­lic who is now a prom­in­ent GOP fun­draiser and head of an or­gan­iz­a­tion of 1,200 phys­i­cians called Cor­inthi­an Med­ic­al IPA.

Some people proved harder to identi­fy. One heavyset man, sport­ing a blazer and slicked-back gray hair, told me he was an “en­tre­pren­eur and busi­ness­man” and gave his name as “Jimmy,” and then, upon fur­ther in­quiry, “Jimmy J. An­onym­ous.” I nev­er figured out who he was.

Among the audi­ence, clustered in a few rows just off the cen­ter aisle, were about two dozen non­whites, mostly Lati­nos. One wo­man car­ried a board that said, “His­panos Con Jorge.” Her name was Stephanie Du­luc, and she said she’d come from New York to be there. I asked why she ad­mired Pa­taki. “His lead­er­ship, I guess,” she said. “He has worked a lot in the His­pan­ic com­munity.” An­oth­er lady, seated in the back row, waved me away when I ap­proached. “I don’t know noth­ing,” she said. “Thank you.”

MANY CAN­DID­ATES WITH 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.

En­er­get­ic over­sight and gruel­ing sched­ules char­ac­ter­ize the suc­cess­ful Cab­in­et sec­ret­ary, the George Mar­shall type. It’s tough to ima­gine that Pa­taki is run­ning for pres­id­ent in or­der to set him­self up for this kind of job.

FOR HIS LAUNCH speech, Pa­taki wore a navy suit, white shirt, and blue tie with a quiet pat­tern. After an in­tro­duc­tion from his wife prom­ising that “He. Will. LEAD,” Pa­taki took the po­di­um. “Thank you, thank you, thank you so much,” he told the cheer­ing 200. “You’re the reas­on I’m here this morn­ing. To help your fu­ture be bet­ter fu­tures.” After more thanks, he broke in with: “Y tam­bi­en a to­dos mis ami­gos que es­t­an con noso­tros hoy, gra­cias por su apoyo.” In 2002, dur­ing his most re­cent run for gov­ernor, Pa­taki taught him­self Span­ish.

What fol­lowed did not sat­is­fy those look­ing for dis­tinc­tion. Pa­taki spoke of “in­trus­ive gov­ern­ment” get­ting in the way of busi­nesspeople, of a child­hood on a farm in Peek­skill, New York, where “we be­lieved in the Amer­ic­an Dream,” and of plans to re­place “de­pend­ency with op­por­tun­ity.” On for­eign policy, he wanted to “strengthen our mil­it­ary,” “stand with our ally Is­rael,” and make Amer­ica a “cham­pi­on of liberty and free­dom.” Lines like “We will cre­ate and in­nov­ate, jobs will flour­ish, and peoples’ faith in Amer­ica’s fu­ture will soar” were de­livered in a stage whis­per to sig­nal in­tens­ity.

There were some jabs at Hil­lary Clin­ton. There was a vow to re­peal Obama­care and Com­mon Core. There was a shout-out, fol­lowed by a stand­ing ova­tion, to all mem­bers of the U.S. mil­it­ary and vet­er­ans, in­clud­ing Pa­taki’s two sons. Pa­taki prom­ised that he would pre­vent Ir­an from get­ting a nuc­le­ar bomb and would fight IS­IS on the ground if it be­came ne­ces­sary. He vowed to en­act a “life­time ban” on mem­bers of Con­gress “ever be­com­ing lob­by­ists.”

(RE­LATED: It’s Un­clear Why Pa­taki Is Run­ning)

Dur­ing a fi­nal few lines that were sup­posed to in­voke “the dreams of a young child born today, wheth­er in down­town Bal­timore or up­state New York,” Pa­taki went off-script and ad­ded “or right here in Nashua, New Hamp­shire.” Since this was Ex­eter, and Nashua was about an hour away, cries of “Oh” went up among the press corps, and Pa­taki’s people looked stricken. The speech con­cluded seconds later, the crowd stood to ap­plaud and holler, and the can­did­ate, who prob­ably hadn’t no­ticed the mis­take, beamed and took hugs from his fam­ily, who looked grim-faced. Was this go­ing to be the news item of the day?

Pa­taki left in a black GMC Yukon, and every­one filed out. TV re­port­ers stood out­side film­ing seg­ments, and or­gan­izers cleaned up in­side. I no­ticed that pretty much every per­son of col­or I’d seen in the room was now gathered out­doors at a band­stand across the street. Sev­er­al minutes later, a large white coach pulled up, and all of them boarded it. It drove away.

A few hours later, The New York Times noted Pa­taki’s blun­der in a short item called “George Pa­taki Flubs New Hamp­shire Loc­ale in Kick­off Speech.” The re­port­er, Alan Rap­pe­port, had enough mercy to call the mis­take “com­mon” and write it off as “a little bit of rust.” All in all, it was also a re­mind­er that there are still some be­ne­fits to be­ing in last place. The story had no legs, be­cause no one cared.

“VAN­ITY,” WROTE JOHN ADAMS in 1782, “is a pas­sion cap­able of in­spir­ing il­lu­sions which as­ton­ish all oth­er men.” Could that be a factor in George Pa­taki’s pres­id­en­tial bid?

On the sur­face, no. As politi­cians go, Pa­taki seems mod­est. Polit­ic­al van­ity as a concept feels bet­ter suited to ex­plain­ing someone like Don­ald Trump. (Pa­taki, for the re­cord, re­cently con­demned Trump’s in­flam­mat­ory re­marks about Mex­ic­an im­mig­rants and chal­lenged him to a de­bate on im­mig­ra­tion. Trump did not re­spond to the in­vit­a­tion, al­though he did briefly take to Twit­ter to as­sess Pa­taki’s re­cord among gov­ernors as be­ing “one of the worst,” a phrase he had pre­vi­ously re­served for Mario Cuomo, Barack Obama, the Safe Act, Charles Krau­tham­mer, an ad­vert­ise­ment by the polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tee Amer­ic­an Cross­roads, and Palm Beach County Air­ports Dir­ect­or Bruce Pelly.)

Un­like Trump, Pa­taki ex­udes cau­tion; he doesn’t jab a fin­ger at the listen­er or in­sist that he has the an­swer to everything. Such mod­esty has worked for Pa­taki his­tor­ic­ally. When he ran for gov­ernor in 1994, tak­ing on in­cum­bent Mario Cuomo, he ran an ex­cep­tion­ally dis­cip­lined cam­paign, re­fus­ing to be col­or­ful and fo­cus­ing strictly on taxes (anti) and the death pen­alty (pro). Voters were sick enough of Cuomo to go for it. As New York state’s elect­or­ate moved left, Pa­taki fol­lowed along, set­ting aside ini­tial fisc­al aus­ter­ity and most con­ser­vat­ive so­cial policies, much to the chag­rin of New York con­ser­vat­ives.

Pataki in Exeter, New Hampshire, on May 28, the day he declared that he was running for president. (Darren McCollester/Getty Images) Getty Images

His man­ner has al­ways been con­cili­at­ory, and, while his de­tract­ors are many, his out­right en­emies are few. “There is no dark side to George Pa­taki,” says Ber­na­dette Castro, who was New York state parks com­mis­sion­er dur­ing all three of Pa­taki’s terms in of­fice. “He’s go­ing to try to win you over. He’s not go­ing to try to crush you.”

Cau­tion in one con­text can be van­ity in an­oth­er, however. To enter a packed pres­id­en­tial field without something not­able to say is like ad­dress­ing a crowd in a whis­per and ex­pect­ing people to shut up and listen. Her­mès can put its name to a shoe and charge high prices, even if the product is on its own un­re­mark­able. Van­ity may ex­plain why a politi­cian would think he could pull off something sim­il­ar.

THE EVEN­ING OF his first of­fi­cial day as a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate, Pa­taki showed up in Hamp­ton, New Hamp­shire, at the Smuttyn­ose Brew­ing Com­pany, the ideal sort of small busi­ness for a cam­paign ap­pear­ance, be­cause it still pro­duces something tan­gible. Hil­lary Clin­ton had paid a vis­it there only a week earli­er, prompt­ing some Re­pub­lic­an act­iv­ists to call for a boy­cott of Smuttyn­ose beer. This made a coun­ter­bal­an­cing vis­it by Pa­taki es­pe­cially wel­come to man­age­ment. About 25 people were there, in­clud­ing a CNN duo con­sist­ing of a scowl­ing Bri­ton and a friendly cam­eraper­son. Turnout, Smuttyn­ose em­ploy­ees later told me, had been lar­ger for Clin­ton.

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State Sen­at­or Nancy Stiles, a sil­ver-haired Pa­taki sup­port­er in a red suit that be­spoke com­mon sense on a budget, told me she’d been won over by Pa­taki’s neigh­borly prag­mat­ism after he’d gone door-knock­ing with her in Oc­to­ber 2014 dur­ing her run for of­fice. With Pa­taki tower­ing be­side her (he is six-foot-five), and both fa­cing the audi­ence and the row of fer­ment­ing tanks be­hind us, Stiles told the audi­ence that Pa­taki was “a real per­son. He listens to people.” One-half of Pa­taki’s mouth smiled. “He’s a vis­ion­ary, but he works for solu­tions,” she said. “Let me in­tro­duce you to the next pres­id­ent of the United States, Gov­ernor Pa­taki.”

Pa­taki thanked Stiles. “She starts out say­ing I’m a nor­mal guy, and I’m here in a brew­ery in a suit and tie,” he said, to laughter. “Be­lieve me, if I wasn’t com­ing from something else and go­ing to something else, I’d look a lot more like you than I do right now.” Pa­taki turned to own­er Peter Egel­ston, who was tie­less. “You put on a tie for her,” Pa­taki said, re­fer­ring to Clin­ton. More laughter. “No, you don’t have to put on a tie for me,” Pa­taki quickly ad­ded, look­ing self-con­scious. “In fact, I’d love to take mine off for you” — he star­ted to loosen his tie — “but I do have to go for an­oth­er thing.” The tie was now slightly un­done, but the col­lar re­mained buttoned. The ef­fect was not Re­agan-esque.

The can­did­ate re­peated the morn­ing’s themes of Wash­ing­ton in­trud­ing on people’s lives. “The great­ness of this coun­try comes from the Amer­ic­an people when the Amer­ic­an people are free to dream, free to strive, free to work to achieve those dreams,” Pa­taki said, again with the breathy whis­per. “This is a great state, this is a great coun­try. We’re gonna make it bet­ter. Thank you, thank you. Now I’m gonna have a beer!”

“I’ll tell ya. This re­minds me so much of when I ran for gov­ernor. No one had heard of me.”

Once he had a Finest­kind IPA in hand, Pa­taki took a couple of ques­tions, of­fer­ing a few more an­swers about how the Amer­ic­an people, not Wash­ing­ton, should de­cide things. The CNN crew got a mo­ment with Pa­taki on his way out and asked about his chances. “I’ll tell ya. This re­minds me so much of when I ran for gov­ernor. No one had heard of me,” he said. “I have al­ways star­ted at the bot­tom. I think it is the best way to do it. You ap­pre­ci­ate something more when you earn it.”

COUNT­LESS PSY­CHO­LO­GISTS HAVE stud­ied the de­lu­sions of those who en­gage in long-shot gambling. One un­sur­pris­ing find­ing is that few of us in­tu­it­ively un­der­stand stat­ist­ics. As Lloyd Christ­mas in Dumb and Dumber says to a love in­terest when she ex­plains that his chances with her are one in a mil­lion, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.” Oth­er factors, as sum­mar­ized in a 1998 art­icle in the Journ­al of Gambling Stud­ies, in­clude “cog­nit­ive en­trap­ment, a be­lief in hot and cold num­bers, un­real­ist­ic op­tim­ism, a be­lief in per­son­al luck, su­per­sti­tious think­ing, the il­lu­sion of con­trol,” and “the er­ro­neous per­cep­tion of near misses.”

Per­haps Pa­taki’s pre­vi­ous gambles have giv­en him an un­real­ist­ic sense of the odds in­volved in this new­est ven­ture. He un­seated an in­cum­bent when he ran for may­or of Peek­skill in 1981. He knocked in­cum­bents out of the state As­sembly in 1984 and the state Sen­ate in 1992. And every­one agrees that his vic­tory over Cuomo was a re­mark­able up­set, one pulled off by someone who’d garnered few­er than 90 men­tions in The New York Times in all the years pri­or to 1994.

in 1994, Pataki pulled off a remarkable upset, ousting Gov. Mario Cuomo. (James Leynse/Corbis) James Leynse/Corbis

In­deed, it’s easy to see why, in Pa­taki’s eyes, 2016 might not look like such an im­possible gamble. The very act of an­noun­cing a U.S. pres­id­en­tial can­did­acy, of com­mand­ing a po­di­um and draw­ing a CNN crew and New York Times re­port­ers, is something done by at most sev­er­al hun­dred Amer­ic­ans over the past few dec­ades. Just by get­ting that far, you are already one in a mil­lion. How much more of a leap is it really to be­come one in 300 mil­lion?

“Light­ning can strike,” says former In­di­ana Gov­ernor and U.S. Sen­at­or Evan Bayh, a Demo­crat who counts Pa­taki as a friendly ac­quaint­ance from their over­lap­ping stints as gov­ernors. “You nev­er know. He’s been gov­ernor of a big state. Some­times the un­ex­pec­ted can hap­pen.”

THE NEXT DAY, around noon, team Pa­taki alighted upon the Haven­wood Her­it­age Heights re­tire­ment com­munity in Con­cord. The room, in the base­ment, was too large, with about 100 chairs. An en­er­get­ic ad­vance team would have re­moved most of them to some­place out of sight. But the solu­tion in this case was to gently herd people, about 25 in num­ber, to­ward the middle.

Pa­taki’s look today was less form­al: kha­kis, a soft-shouldered cas­u­al blazer with sleeves that were too short, and a pair of long square-toed loafers. When he was ac­ci­dent­ally in­tro­duced as a three-term gov­ernor of Cali­for­nia, he quipped, “I know, I look like Arnold Schwar­zeneg­ger.” His re­marks re­capped the fa­vor­ites: Gov­ern­ment should serve us; we shouldn’t serve the gov­ern­ment. He spoke of “the small group of elite, lib­er­al, left people” who think they “are smarter than us, know bet­ter than us, and have the right and the power to tell us how to live our lives.”

This was an in­formed group. One audi­ence mem­ber asked about the Simpson-Bowles de­fi­cit-re­duc­tion plan and stu­dent debt. Pa­taki gave a de­cent but long an­swer about the per­verse tu­ition-rais­ing ef­fects of lower­ing in­terest rates. An­oth­er asked about restor­ing the 40-hour work­week. Pa­taki gave a weak­er, much longer an­swer that put a lot of the blame on the Af­ford­able Care Act. A third asked about il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion, and Pa­taki gave his longest an­swer of all: a plan to first “se­cure the bor­der” and then of­fer leg­al res­id­ency in­stead of cit­izen­ship.

“You know one of the things I’m really bad at?” Pa­taki said. “Politi­cians are sup­posed to give an an­swer in 30 seconds, in eight words. I apo­lo­gize for that. I’ve done a lot of this over the years. I’m very pas­sion­ate about it. Of­ten­times, the an­swer isn’t as simple as some politi­cians and me­dia would like you to think.”

I con­fess I’d been a little bored and dis­trac­ted, but Pa­taki seemed to get a fa­vor­able re­sponse. Af­ter­ward, I asked the im­mig­ra­tion ques­tion­er if the gov­ernor’s an­swer, which struck me as lengthy but du­bi­ous (how did he pro­pose to “se­cure the bor­der,” and why would Latino voters re­ward Re­pub­lic­ans for cham­pi­on­ing res­id­ency status if Demo­crats are of­fer­ing cit­izen­ship?), had sat­is­fied him. “Yes,” the man said, to my sur­prise. So there. Re­port­er proven wrong; Pa­taki proven right.

THE PRO­CESS OF plead­ing for people’s votes looks hor­rible. But Pa­taki claims to en­joy it, and his aides echo his as­ser­tion. One must also ad­mit this much: It’s prob­ably no drear­i­er than sit­ting in midtown Man­hat­tan tend­ing to the af­fairs of the Pa­taki-Cahill Group, “a spe­cial­ized busi­ness de­vel­op­ment firm provid­ing high-level stra­tegic and tac­tic­al ad­vice.” At least Pa­taki is meet­ing polit­ic­ally en­gaged people and hav­ing his move­ments sched­uled by aides, as in the old days.

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 spe­cif­ic things to hap­pen around you.”

(RE­LATED: Pa­taki Raises $256,000, Low­est Amount of Any GOP Hope­ful)

Even if it’s partly selfish, that de­sire to be at the cen­ter of things can spring from a per­fectly hon­or­able place. “I miss it every day,” says Evan Bayh of his time in of­fice. “Every night, when you put your head on the pil­low, you can nor­mally think about something you’ve done that day that helped the people of your state. I think former gov­ernors may be par­tic­u­larly sus­cept­ible to miss­ing that.”

MY SIT-DOWN with Pa­taki took place out­side the True Brew cof­fee shop in down­town Con­cord. It was still hot, and Pa­taki re­moved his blazer. Dur­ing our in­ter­view, after fin­ish­ing his cof­fee, he flipped his empty pa­per cup with his fin­gers as he talked. He is ob­vi­ously ex­per­i­enced at hand­ling the press, guarded but stim­u­lated, like a ten­nis play­er await­ing a serve.

Pa­taki star­ted out on-mes­sage, telling me that what dis­tin­guished him from oth­er can­did­ates was gov­ern­ing as a Re­pub­lic­an in a blue state, lower­ing taxes, “re­du­cing the wel­fare rolls by over a mil­lion,” and so on. But he got less rote as the in­ter­view went on.

He talked about los­ing touch with Hun­gari­an re­l­at­ives after the up­ris­ing of 1956 — the Pa­ta­kis are a Hun­gari­an fam­ily — and how this shaped his lean­ings when he first got in­ter­ested in polit­ics at Yale in the 1960s. When he at­ten­ded Columbia Law School, it was right in time for the 1968 protests that saw the oc­cu­pa­tion of ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ings and ended with a harsh crack­down by po­lice. Pa­taki op­posed the stu­dent rebels, but he does not seem to have been rad­ic­al­ized by the ex­per­i­ence. “One of the things I’ve al­ways been able to do is to have ser­i­ous philo­soph­ic­al dis­agree­ments with people without mak­ing them per­son­al dis­agree­ments,” he told me.

He said he’d con­sidered run­ning in the 2008 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion but bowed out to avoid adding an­oth­er New York­er to a race in which Rudy Gi­uliani seemed to be rid­ing high in the polls.

I asked if his cam­paign against in­trus­ive gov­ern­ment meant that he op­posed Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency sur­veil­lance or the Pat­ri­ot Act. “The Pat­ri­ot Act has helped to pro­tect us from oth­er at­tacks here,” he said, re­mind­ing me that he was gov­ernor of New York on Septem­ber 11.

“By the way, Dave,” Pa­taki said to Dav­id Catal­famo, his spokes­per­son, across the table, “thank Alicia for all the help she’s been giv­ing me in the in­ter­view. She’s been great.” Alicia Pre­ston, Pa­taki’s press sec­ret­ary in New Hamp­shire, had left the table about 15 minutes ago.

I re­ques­ted a thumbs-up or thumbs-down take on some of the more heated polit­ic­al votes in re­cent years. The “Gang of 8” im­mig­ra­tion bill: “I have my own ideas on im­mig­ra­tion.” The Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, or TPP: prob­ably yes, “but I haven’t seen it.” The bail­out of Gen­er­al Mo­tors: yes, but “I think there were parts of the pre­pack­aged bank­ruptcy that were more polit­ic­ally ori­ented than eco­nom­ic­ally ori­ented so I would have tweaked it.” The Troubled As­set Re­lief Pro­gram, which bailed out the banks in 2008: “I really think that was a very bad idea.”

I asked if hav­ing sons in the mil­it­ary had af­fected his out­look on de­ploy­ing troops. Pa­taki spoke of miss­ing a call from over­seas at two in the morn­ing and fear­ing the worst. “You can’t help but have the nat­ur­al fears a par­ent will have when your child is in harm’s way,” he said. “So yes, it re­in­forced what I’ve al­ways be­lieved, that we have to be very prudent in the use of force.”

Pataki says he weighed running for president in 2008 but bowed out because of Rudy Giuliani. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images) AFP/Getty Images

Pa­taki is ob­vi­ously a close fol­low­er of the news, and it was easy to pic­ture him read­ing the pa­per and feel­ing a sense of frus­tra­tion unique to former of­fice­hold­ers: I used to be able to do something about this.

Alicia Pre­ston re­appeared to tell Pa­taki it was time for an in­ter­view on The Mi­chael Med­ved Show, which he took over the phone. As he answered Med­ved’s ques­tions, tap­ping his leg much of the time, Pa­taki was sud­denly a can­did­ate who spoke in brief an­swers. “I’ve al­ways con­sidered my­self to be a lim­ited-gov­ern­ment con­ser­vat­ive, and I’m very proud that we were able to re­duce the size, the cost, the im­pact of gov­ern­ment on people’s lives.” “I be­lieve per­son­ally that life be­gins at con­cep­tion, but I don’t think it’s Wash­ing­ton’s right to im­pose my view on people who don’t share that view.” (Pa­taki has al­ways been pro-choice.) “I’m against fed­er­al fund­ing of abor­tion. I be­lieve we should leave those is­sues to the states and to the people.”

Af­ter­ward, I del­ic­ately in­vited an ex­plan­a­tion for the con­trast between his some­what lengthy an­swers in per­son and his con­cise and seem­ingly ef­fect­ive an­swers on the ra­dio. He said it was luck of the draw. “You nev­er know. I’ve giv­en some really good speeches, and I’ve giv­en some really bad speeches, and I nev­er know which it’s gonna be,” Pa­taki said. (When I reached Med­ved later, he said that Pa­taki, a friend from Yale, was al­ways great on the air­waves. His ad­vice to the can­did­ate: “George, treat an­swer­ing ques­tions from an audi­ence the way you treat an­swers on the ra­dio.”)

Mis­takes on a cam­paign trail don’t both­er Pa­taki too much. “You kick your­self for about two minutes, your staff tor­tures you, makes fun of you, and you laugh,” he said. “My speech to the fire­fight­ers?” (Pa­taki and sev­er­al oth­er pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates spoke to a gath­er­ing of the In­ter­na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Fire Fight­ers in Wash­ing­ton this past March.) “One of the all-time worst speeches ever giv­en by a polit­ic­al fig­ure, and while I’m do­ing it, I know it’s a com­plete cata­strophe.” He said that Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Peter King, who spoke first, had already made a lot of the points he’d hoped to make, caus­ing him to try last-minute im­pro­visa­tion.

How did he exit the situ­ation? “Humbly,” Pa­taki answered. “Let me out the back door.”

SELF-RE­GARD, self-de­lu­sion, a de­sire to re­turn to the cen­ter of the ac­tion, a self­less sense of pub­lic spir­it — we can at best say that a mix­ture of these factors ac­count for why someone like George Pa­taki would run for pres­id­ent.

Yet it seems slightly un­fair to leave things there. To ask “why” about Pa­taki’s can­did­acy might be ob­vi­ous, but it also rests on a num­ber of un­spoken as­sump­tions about our polit­ic­al sys­tem. Per­haps we should be ask­ing ques­tions about those as­sump­tions, too.

The former New York gov­ernor is clearly seasoned and in­tel­li­gent, more so than many of his op­pon­ents; yet we tend to ac­cept that his cur­rent lack of celebrity makes these cre­den­tials un­im­port­ant. Why, ex­actly? Why is someone like Marco Ru­bio viewed as a more cred­ible can­did­ate? For some reas­on, we al­low name re­cog­ni­tion to be­come its own jus­ti­fic­a­tion.

(RE­LATED: Sev­en Things You Learn About 2016 Cam­paigns From Star­ing at FEC Data Too Long)

Pa­taki’s can­did­acy also raises ques­tions about the role of bold­ness and ideo­logy in pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. Our cam­paign pro­cess fa­vors hy­per-am­bi­tion over a more laid-back ap­proach. And, in­creas­ingly, it seems to fa­vor hard-liners over mod­er­ates. “Who’s go­ing to be will­ing to jump through all of these hoops, to spend all day call­ing strangers to beg for money, to put their per­son­al lives and their fam­il­ies through the me­dia wringer?” says Stan­ford polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist An­drew Hall, who stud­ies this phe­nomen­on. “It’s by and large go­ing to be people whose views are ex­treme enough to make them feel like they have to do it.”

Most of us don’t much care for these real­it­ies. The stakes of each race go up too much: Vic­tory by one side be­comes the vic­tory of someone who is, in the view of the op­pos­ing side, crazy. Pa­taki is neither bold nor ideo­lo­gic­al; as a res­ult, al­most no one could view him as crazy, and per­haps that’s a plus. “I think he be­lieves he has as much as any­one and maybe more to of­fer the coun­try as pres­id­ent of the United States,” says former U.S. Sen­at­or Al D’Am­ato, who was a cru­cial back­er of Pa­taki’s 1994 run. “And he’s a con­ser­vat­ive who’s not a wack­a­doodle.”

Ar­gu­ably, it’s a shame that our pres­id­en­tial sys­tem makes it dif­fi­cult for people like George Pa­taki to run. I sus­pect, if Pa­taki were in of­fice, that his squish­i­ness of ideo­logy and un­likeli­ness to ac­com­plish much would be a quiet strength, much like W.S. Gil­bert’s House of Peers, which did “noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar, and did it very well.” Pa­taki’s polit­ics and tem­pera­ment seem es­pe­cially suited to those who lean right in the cul­ture wars but would just as soon see them go un­fought. They want il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion stopped, but they don’t want to get nasty about it. They want hon­est po­lice, but they don’t ac­cept ri­ots. They’re fine with same-sex mar­riage, but they’re also fine with re­cal­cit­rant bakers. They’re done with war, but they want IS­IS crushed. They’re a bit fed up, but not vi­ol­ently so. At a time when it of­ten seems, as Yeats fam­ously put it, that the “worst are full of pas­sion­ate in­tens­ity,” maybe it’s also true that the “best lack all con­vic­tion.” Maybe Yeats was say­ing that George Pa­taki is the best.

PA­TAKI’S FI­NAL PUB­LIC ap­pear­ance on his first post-launch tour of New Hamp­shire was on the M/S Mount Wash­ing­ton, a 230-foot ex­cur­sion ship that takes people on three-hour cruises around Lake Win­nipe­sau­kee. For $50, about 500 pas­sen­gers could en­joy roast beef, straw­berry short­cake, and a chance to see speeches by former Vir­gin­ia Gov­ernor Jim Gilmore, former U.N. Am­bas­sad­or John Bolton, cur­rent Louisi­ana Gov­ernor Bobby Jin­dal, cur­rent Wis­con­sin Gov­ernor Scott Walk­er — and Pa­taki.

The weath­er, once again, was hot, the main room stuffy. The roast beef, on the oth­er hand, was not bad. The main event took place on a part of the boat with a stage and, in front of it, a par­quet dance floor. Em­cee­ing the event was Siri­usXM Pat­ri­ot ra­dio-host Dav­id Webb, who struggled to get any­one to pay at­ten­tion.

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It prom­ised to be a long even­ing. Pa­taki du­ti­fully ambled around the decks and din­ing tables, look­ing for people to greet, clasp­ing their hands, and reg­u­larly flash­ing a half-smile. “Hello, how are you? Good to see ya. How are ya?”

Most of the tables were in oth­er rooms en­tirely out of view of the main stage, and I wondered how cruis­ers would be able to get a good look at the Re­pub­lic­an speak­ers. I didn’t yet real­ize that few of them in­ten­ded to listen to the speak­ers.

As we set sail, cruise or­gan­izer Alan Glass­man an­nounced that Bobby Jin­dal had bowed out and so had John Bolton. Scott Walk­er was on his way but had lit­er­ally missed the boat. Glass­man de­cided that we would sail about for a while and then go back to port to col­lect the gov­ernor of Wis­con­sin.

Webb called Pa­taki up to the po­di­um to give the first speech of the even­ing, and the din of chat­ting diners re­ceded not at all. A small, tight U of on­look­ers, a sub­stan­tial num­ber of them with cam­er­as or mi­cro­phones, crowded in to hear what Pa­taki had to say. The re­marks, to the ex­tent I could hear them, echoed his stand­ard cam­paign lan­guage, with talk of in­trus­ive gov­ern­ment and “tax-code gobble-dy-gook.” Pa­taki makes a lot of words seem like tongue twisters.

“Are there any vet­er­ans here?” Pa­taki asked, a ques­tion that would have worked well in a rapt ball­room, less so among a fid­gety scrum of 50 people, many of them press. “You are the best,” Pa­taki said to vig­or­ous ap­plause from a hand­ful of people. “Raise your hands so we can sa­lute you.”

As he spoke, I strolled about the boat to see if any­one else cared. No one did. People ate their din­ners and talked among them­selves. You could hear Pa­taki over the loud­speak­ers in the ceil­ing, if you con­cen­trated. This truly was like whis­per­ing in a crowd. But did it seem egot­ist­ic­al on the part of George Pa­taki? Not really. It seemed more like gamely sol­dier­ing on, des­pite the in­dig­nity.

Pa­taki is neither bold nor ideo­lo­gic­al. As a res­ult, no one could view him as crazy.

Pa­taki’s speech ended, to ad­di­tion­al ap­plause from a small group in his im­me­di­ate vi­cin­ity. Glass­man, the or­gan­izer, presen­ted Pa­taki with maple syr­up and a couple of oth­er memen­tos. Jim Gilmore now took the stage and, if it was any con­sol­a­tion to Pa­taki, com­manded no more in­terest.

The boat re­turned to port, where, wait­ing at the dock with his aides, was Scott Walk­er, look­ing boy­ish and at­tent­ive. The press hustled over to film his ar­rival, and gov­ernors Gilmore, Pa­taki, and Walk­er gathered on the up­per deck to pose for pho­to­graph­ers to­geth­er. Some pas­sen­gers sought out the can­did­ates to speak to them, but most did not. The ones who were most eager to greet the can­did­ates seemed, frankly speak­ing, to be the least nor­mal, the sort who make you feel they might be bet­ter served by some oth­er hobby. These were not likely Pa­takiites.

THE DI­VER­SION OF the ves­sel back to port had one great ad­vant­age for Pa­taki and me: It gave us both an ex­cuse to leave. Pa­taki and Alicia Pre­ston made their way down the gang­plank and up to the main road, and I eagerly trailed. “I wouldn’t mind hav­ing a drink right now,” Pa­taki said to her with tired cheer.

No­ti­cing me, Pa­taki reached around to shake hands once more, and I thanked him for get­ting me off the boat. “You’ve suffered enough,” he said with a grin. “Say something nice, just one out of the 20 things, be­cause we saved you an hour.”

We can all tell more than one story about the vari­ous epis­odes and choices in our lives. We can tell ourselves why our ac­tions were hon­or­able or why they were base, and of­ten, even in our own minds, both ver­sions feel be­liev­able. I could tell you that Pa­taki is a vain has-been whose cam­paign is use­ful only as a case study in why some politi­cians de­lude them­selves in­to think­ing they have a chance to be pres­id­ent. Or I could tell you he’s the quix­ot­ic voice of mod­er­a­tion in a crazy time, a man whose can­did­acy helps lay bare the ab­surdit­ies in our cur­rent pres­id­en­tial se­lec­tion pro­cess.

The facts to sup­port either of these points line up equally well. But let’s be kind. I’ll re­turn to John Adams. “The steady man­age­ment of a good gov­ern­ment is the most anxious, ar­du­ous, and haz­ard­ous vo­ca­tion on this side the grave,” he wrote, en­treat­ing the read­er to think twice be­fore en­cum­ber­ing those “who have spir­it enough to em­bark in such an en­ter­prise.”

The black Yukon pulled up; Pa­taki and Pre­ston got in. In the weeks that fol­lowed, Pa­taki con­tin­ued to cam­paign in New Hamp­shire, can­celed events to at­tend to a son-in-law who was hos­pit­al­ized, cel­eb­rated the birth of a grand­child, and hit the trail some more.

Would George Pa­taki be a good pres­id­ent? Well, let’s just say that fol­low-through is not his strong suit. If it’s cus­tom­ary to cam­paign in po­etry and gov­ern in prose, Pa­taki cam­paigns in prose and gov­erns in emo­jis. But that doesn’t make his can­did­acy point­less. To quote The New York Times, we should be “well aware that it is pos­sible to do worse.”

T.A. Frank is a writer in Seattle.


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