Paterson and His Aide.

For a while now, there's been a rumor percolating that the New York Times had been sitting on a blockbuster story about New York Gov. David Paterson that might even force him out of office, much as his predecessor Eliot Spitzer was when the Times revealed his predilection for prostitutes.

Now that the piece is here, it looks like a whole lot of hype. The story focuses on the "rapid rise" of Paterson aide David W. Johnson, who has a couple of felony drug arrests as a teenager. In one circumstance, Johnson pleaded to a lesser charge and was given probation. He has apparently been involved in two altercations with former girlfriends, the second of which the Times suggests may have turned violent. If Johnson did abuse his girlfriend, that's absolutely unacceptable. But as everyone involved has refused to comment, it's difficult to know what actually happened.

So the heft of the story rests on the reader either believing that Johnson's convictions for drug offenses as a teenager in Harlem disqualify him from being close to the governor, or that someone with past run-ins with the law has no place in public life or politics by definition.The Times' big expose seems to be that the governor takes counsel from a scary black man from the hood, who "6-foot-7, with a booming voice," casts an "imposing figure." Even writing that makes me want to cross the street, my iPod Shuffle clutched to my breast.

If Johnson had wanted to be in a field like entertainment, his youthful experiences would have discernible market value: Americans are comfortable paying black people for the ability to engage in voyeuristic experiences of black poverty -- we're just not so interested in such people being able to live productive lives outside the parameters of work we deem "acceptable" for such people. We're happy with someone like Johnson being successful as a rapper or an actor, or laboring for a lifetime as a janitor or a construction worker in a kind of Sisyphean penitence. But walking around in a suit with a college degree from John Jay and the ear of New York's governor? That's offensive.

That general lack of mercy is reflected in prison policy. We're not really satisfied with punishing people with prison terms -- we want the rest of their lives to be miserable. So we allow prisons to be havens for rape and abuse, we deny the formerly incarcerated the right to vote, we devote little effort to implementing policies that might prevent them from re-offending, and we're comfortable paying through the nose for all of it. And when someone hurtling toward that kind of disaster manages to turn their lives around, we generally do what we can not to let them get the idea that they have a right to pursue happiness just like everyone else.

-- A. Serwer

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