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Pataki stresses the need for political common ground

Former New York Gov. George Pataki seemed right at home Wednesday when he spoke to a half-full Salomon 101 audience that responded enthusiastically when the former governor asked how many people were from his home state.

He then jokingly asked the Yankees fans in the crowd if he had missed the World Series this year. (The Yankees have won more World Series championships than any other baseball franchise but were not featured in this year's match-up).

Pataki also referred to his slight discomfort of speaking at Brown as a member of the Republican Party. But he was comforted, he said, when he stepped into Blue State Coffee and found common ground simply with a good cup of coffee.

"I was a little nervous because I was a conservative Republican from New York ... and I was told that when Hilary Clinton spoke here, she was booed because she wasn't liberal enough."

In March 2006, about a half-dozen activists protested Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., before she delivered a speech in Meehan Auditorium.

Pataki served three terms as governor of New York, beginning in 1994 and stepping down in 2006.

Pataki's speech, a part of the Noah Krieger '93 Memorial Lecture series, was entitled "A House Divided: An Insider's View of the State of National Politics" and was sponsored by the Taubman Center for Public Policy. According to Pataki, the current issue facing national politics is polarization, and his anecdote about Blue State Coffee seemed to serve as an analogy for the larger themes in his speech - finding commonalities across party lines to address the issues facing the nation today.

His experiences as governor of New York shaped most of his lecture. One of the central themes of his speech revolved around public reaction in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, which Pataki said he thinks is characteristic of the American public as a whole.

"You think of Americans - we're from every corner of the globe. There's no racial, religious, geographic terms that define Americans," Pataki said. "What defines us is our character."

He credited Americans' optimism and pragmatism with moving the country forward throughout its history. A third and final characteristic of Americans, he said, is the ability to stand together after a crisis such as 9/11.

Pataki described one anecdote to exemplify American unity. Pataki said that three days after 9/11, when President Bush visited Ground Zero, Pataki, along with Bush and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani traveled to the west side of Manhattan and were greeted by waving flags and posters saying "God Bless You, President Bush." Pataki turned to Bush and said to the president, "Take a look - Greenwich Village, the west side of Manhattan - thousands of people, they love you. Not one of them voted for you this year." Giuliani then turned to Pataki and said, "Not one of them voted for you either."

Pataki told the Salomon 101 audience this was the general feeling present at the time - that politics didn't matter and Bush was America's leader. Fast-forward to today, Pataki said, and that cohesion and optimism is missing, which makes it unclear who is the strongest candidate for president.

"There isn't such a clear delineation as to who is the most likely next president for the country. ... No one has really connected to the American people yet," Pataki said. "What the candidates have failed to do is step back and think about the nature of our country and what makes the United States unique. ... The first is the nature of our government; the second is the character of the people. I think it is profoundly important that our country was a unique experiment where the power came from the people."

"So who's going to win in 2008? I think the American people want someone who understands and is going to be consistent with the American character," Pataki said. "They want that optimism, they don't want polarization. ... And people want pragmatic solutions, they don't want someone saying, 'Let me check my ideology before I decide if we're going to attack this problem.' "

The nation faces challenges to national security, and the economic challenges due to increased globalization, but Pataki thinks pollution and the threat of climate change challenges the promise of a better life for future generations. Pataki thinks the one major issue facing the nation is its reliance on foreign oil and fossil fuels, but no one has laid down an optimistic and pragmatic solution to these issues, he said.

Pataki also said the government should support research in alternative energies by protecting the rights to explore and utilize renewable sources. The government could also make a difference with small changes. One such change, he said, is that the government could guarantee to buy vehicles that use clean and renewable fuel, which would create a market for such vehicles "overnight." Some initiatives have been undertaken in New York already, and Pataki believes that there must be a nationwide initiative, as well as new means for physically transporting alternative forms of energy across the country.

Pataki drew a parallel between the Soviet launch of Sputnik and the environmental issues facing the nation today.

"It was a crisis, and the United States responded to the crisis, and in the process created technology which is still used today," Pataki said. "In my mind, this is every bit as serious a crisis, and we need every bit as strong a leader laying out a pragmatic, optimistic solution that can bring the American people together, so we have that unity that we had when we confronted the Sputnik challenge, and we had that unity that we had for so short a period of time after September 11."

In a question-and-answer session following his lecture, one audience member asked about the response to 9/11 in comparison to the response to Hurricane Katrina. Pataki responded that the difference in the responses to those incidents depended on the leadership at the time. On 9/11, Guiliani created a command center in Manhattan, and Pataki decided that he would not have a separate center from the mayor's.

"We were going to have one unified command, we would speak as one voice, we would act as one body," Pataki said. "So I think it depends on the leadership at the time, and their willingness to work together."


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