Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Caroline Kennedy rule

David Paterson

An otherwise obscure political confession forms the basis of a bedrock principle of academic governance. Witness this February 20, 2009, revelation by David A. Paterson, governor of New York:
For the first time, Gov. David A. Paterson acknowledged Friday that he personally ordered his staff to contest Caroline Kennedy’s version of events in the hours after she withdrew from consideration to be United States senator.

However, Mr. Paterson said that he was bewildered when his staffers subsequently unleashed harsh personal attacks against Ms. Kennedy, saying he merely wanted them to challenge the assertion from Ms. Kennedy’s camp that she had been his first choice to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“The things said about Caroline I found despicable and shocking and very painful,” the governor said in a telephone interview, adding, “I never would have imagined removing the idea that this is my first choice meant a character assassination.”

The governor’s handling of the Senate selection process and his administration’s treatment of Ms. Kennedy drew intense criticism. Ms. Kennedy withdrew her name just after midnight Jan. 22, a development that embarrassed Mr. Paterson and set off fears in his inner circle that anyone he then selected would look like a second choice.

That afternoon, members of the administration called reporters, and, under cloak of anonymity, claimed that serious tax problems and issues with a domestic worker had emerged during the vetting of Ms. Kennedy, helping to derail her candidacy. Those claims were highly exaggerated, all sides now acknowledge; no serious or disqualifying issues had arisen.

The attack bewildered Democrats across the country, and Mr. Paterson’s poll numbers suffered significant declines in the subsequent weeks.

Mr. Paterson stressed in the interview that he had been acting only out of a desire to rebut the specific point that Ms. Kennedy had been his first choice.

He said he told his staff: “Let’s try to point out that we’re not indicating that anybody is the No. 1.”

“I understood we’d be pushing back for that,” he said, adding, “How that turned into what happened is something I have to take responsibility for.”
Indeed. Let's give two cheers for Governor Paterson. First, for all the political damage he has inflicted upon himself, David Paterson didn't so thoroughly muff his seventeenth amendment responsibilities that he needed to be removed from office. And if you think that besting Rod Blagojevich in political ethics is too modest an achievement to laud, then join me in thanking Governor Paterson for his part in inspiring a MoneyLaw principle that I'll call "the Caroline Kennedy rule."

Read the rest of this post . . . .Pick me!Jobs are important things, whether they're seats in the United States Senate or appointments to the faculty or dean's office of a law school. Precisely because they are important and scarce and coveted, those vested with the responsibility to fill these positions should approach that task with the utmost care. More often than not, there will more candidates than open positions. Choose carefully.

Simply to acknowledge the gravity and difficulty of the selection process, however, is not to excuse the sordid misbehavior that decisionmakers, whether they are governors or law professors, often indulge in order to justify their choices. There is a universe of legitimate reasons to hire someone — or, for that matter, to pass over one candidate in favor of another. Pick one.

What happens all too often, though, is that the decisionmaker feels some twisted need to pile on. As though the legitimate reasons were not enough — or perhaps because the decisionmaker suspects, perhaps even knows, that she or he cannot marshal a convincing case on the merits — the decisionmaker wraps the rejected candidate in abuse. Caroline Kennedy, according to Governor Paterson's staff, was morally unfit to serve as Senator because she allegedly exploited her household help and dodged federal income tax. In retrospect, none of that was true, and neither Governor Paterson nor his staff have retained their dignity.

Kirsten GillibrandIt would have been easy enough for Governor Paterson to say, straightforwardly and candidly, that he considered Kirsten Gillibrand a better choice than Caroline Kennedy to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate. As a matter of actual political experience, as opposed to genealogy or name recognition, it would have been almost impossible to refute that basis for preferring Kirsten Gillibrand. Instead, David Paterson inflicted upon himself a gaping political wound.

Academia should learn from Governor Paterson's folly. It is very easy to reject any candidate for an academic appointment, at any rank from postgraduate research fellow to university president, on grounds of talent, experience, and/or "upside." Feeling the need to buttress the case against a particular candidate by trashing that person's character, at best, displays the decisionmaker's own moral failings. Though those shortcomings might arise from no more than personal insecurity about one's own capacity to decide, they reflect very poorly on those who trash. That is the legacy that the debacle over Caroline Kennedy's Senate candidacy leaves to academia. We would do well to take the lesson to heart.


Anonymous Ferry County Attorney said...

Why did Patterson even feel the need to explain? He looks weak by even addressing the subject. As long is he is not soliticing cash for the appointment, he can just make his pick and everyone will forget about it a couple days later.

2/21/2009 6:36 PM  
Blogger Ani Onomous said...

I'm not sure I understand the rule, or how to reconcile it with the ethos here. One version is "pick a legitimate reason and don't pile on." But then, in the two paragraphs beginning "It would have been easy enough . . .," you emphasize establishing some reason that's sufficient and irrefutable, and particularly the need to avoid maligning someone's character when there's another way the decision could be publicly justified.

If this is only about not making up character-based attacks as post-hoc, unnecessary slurs, fine . . . but not too controversial. Or is it also about candor? Suppose that one makes a hiring decision based on character, as this blog often urges. Should faculty members discuss the decision in character terms, but explain any decision to the candidate or otherwise in terms of some other metric? Or should they even during decisionmaking rationalize any decision in terms of some traditional metric, like productivity, rather than enter the toxic realm of discussing someone's character?

Here's my point: making decisions based on character will be painful, as I think this post indirectly acknowledges (though here, the reasons were trumped up). How much progress is one going to make by suggesting, indirectly, that public justifications along that dimension should especially be avoided?

2/24/2009 10:07 AM  
Blogger aglu said...

Patterson it is not absolutely right. Its statements disputable.

2/25/2009 1:11 AM  

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