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by B. T. Kimbrough
(We wish to thank the Cutting Corporation, producer of the audio cassette edition of DIALOGUE, for cooperation in enabling us to directly mix the recorded narration with voices of people being quoted. We hope to include more voices in future issues of DIALOGUE.)
How would a person with less than 10 percent vision go about preparing to be a state governor? What advice would such a person give to other politically ambitious blind people about preparing for the job? Answers to these questions will have to wait until we are fortunate enough to secure a DIALOGUE interview with the governor in question. For now, we can learn a good deal about the man and his unique circumstances from a review of the radio and newspaper coverage which coincided with his sudden celebrity status.
Regular DIALOGUE contributor Toni Lechowicz has been following his story since the fall of 2006, when David A. Paterson became only the second elected legally blind Lieutenant-Governor in history. Toni submitted an enlightening news item which appeared in the "Did You Know" column of the January-February 2007 issue of DIALOGUE. With Toni's skillful assistance, I scanned much of the media coverage from that frantic week in March when Eliot Spitzer resigned and Paterson became the governor of the state of New York. As a life-long news junkie, it is my firm conviction that much can be learned from what the news organizations choose to cover as well as from what celebrities actually tell us.
In the big picture, New York's new governor has at least three things in common with President Franklin D. Roosevelt: Both Democrats, they both became governor of New York after sudden unexpected political events, and both rose to their prominent jobs with what most people would acknowledge to be physical disabilities. When FDR moved into the governor's office, he did so with both legs virtually paralyzed as a result of polio. Governor Paterson has been legally blind since infancy as a result of optic nerve atrophy brought on by an ear infection.
At this point, the similarity between the two men, at least in terms of physical limitations, evolves into a study in contrast. With full cooperation from the media of his day, FDR worked hard to keep his orthopedic limitations out of the limelight. It is no exaggeration to say that virtually none of his constituents knew that Governor and later President Roosevelt could only stand with great difficulty. By contrast, Governor Paterson appears to be making no effort to keep his sight limitations on a "back burner," and judging from the level of media interest as he took office on March 17, he couldn't if he tried.
With small residual vision at a level of 20/400 in only the right eye, he reads print only at very close range for short periods. His speeches are produced by a combination of polished ad-libbing and impressive memorization. Governor Paterson recently told the New York Times that his small amount of usable vision sometimes brings on complications. "I think people's perception of me sometimes is that I see more than I actually do. But I play basketball, and I've done things that people with my vision aren't supposed to do. I'm in this interesting sort of zone between the sighted and the unsighted, and I have never really met anyone who I visually relate to; I've never met anyone who is kind of like me."
Humor plays a major role in the governor's public personality. Some of it relates to visual issues, such as the reference he made in his swearing-in address when he recalled an incident involving a gavel he was wielding, which was intercepted by a colleague on its way to contact with a glass. Many of his spontaneous laugh-lines have nothing to do with vision, such as the moment applause from state workers greeted his entrance to take the oath of office. The moment was captured by National Public Radio. "If most of you weren't being paid," said the 53-year-old governor-to-be, "I'd be flattered by that."
Paterson is also one of less than half a dozen African-Americans to occupy a governor's seat in this country. In another moment captured by National Public Radio, he gave eloquent voice to his feelings on that subject. "In some ways, I feel that I'm sitting on a sandcastle that others have built. There's so many African-Americans, both men and women, who throughout the past couple of centuries have struggled unremittingly to try to advance opportunity for all people and for themselves. I think they would have been far more qualified than me to serve in this position."
Asked at a news conference to comment on his other unique status, the new governor said, "71 percent of the blind are unemployed; 90 percent of deaf people in this country are unemployed; maybe one of them could figure out a cure for cancer. So to whatever extent my presence impresses upon employers or impresses upon younger people who are like me in either way, then I would feel very privileged, very proud, and very flattered to be in this position."
As the governor took the oath of office and delivered his first speech, the New York Times sent a reporter to the New York Institute for Special Education to listen with the students and staff and catch their reactions. The school's director, Bernadette Kappen, said, "I think for students, it is something that expands their ideas of what is possible."
"It's definitely nice to see someone up there who represents us in a way," said 17-year-old Devin Bullock.
"I hope people look at him for what he is, and who he is," added 16-year-old Ibraheem Shahdat.
That's a highly significant question: How do people see him? It may be too soon to get a cohesive answer from New York voters, so let's hear from a friend and colleague, former New York Mayor David Dinkins.
A National Public Radio correspondent asked Mayor Dinkins, "What can you tell us about David Paterson?" The former mayor responded, "I've known him his entire life. His father Basil Paterson and I were once law partners. He has a mind like a steel trap; he forgets nothing. He can memorize an entire speech. He's full of minute details on all kinds of subjects. He's got a great rye sense of humor--not everybody gets it the first time. I think anyone who makes the mistake of thinking that his cordiality is softness is making a serious error, because he's one tough kid."
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