THE BLOG

Farce Turns To Tragedy

07/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My former boss, the late Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, was a noted author and social scientist. He wrote an article for the American Scholar in 1993 where he referred to a phenomenon in which society begins to accept levels of behavior that heretofore would have been unacceptable.

As this aberrant or deviant behavior increases, society redefines what it considers excess...in short defining deviancy down. Standards are lower, so bad behavior that would have been met with punishment, ostracism, or some other sanction is now considered part of a new norm. (This is the extent of my sociology lecture so that I don't do any damage to Pat Moynihan's work.) I believe that this is exactly what we are seeing and experiencing in Albany these past two weeks.

While the problem has been festering and incubating for a long time, these past 15 days are the political equivalent of laboratory conditions. What we are seeing play out - the communal madness and outlandish posturing, the pushing and shoving, the manic statements of the key players - is a pure, unpolluted, and undiluted tragedy for our state.

That is not easy for me to say but facts are stubborn things. There was a time when a career in politics could help your business or might open up doors for new struggling immigrants or the children of working class families. What father would ask his children if they ever thought of growing up to be a state senator like Pedro Espada? I doubt the conversation took place anywhere but in the confines of whatever house, condo, coop, apartment, residence or domicile that the Senator was using that particular weekend. No, we used to have state senators with names like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Robert F. Wagner, Sr. Names that live on and can inspire succeeding generations.

FDR led a revolt on the senate floor tying up judicial confirmations in order to force some reforms into the senate and weaken the political bosses of Tammany Hall. For this he won national attention so that when Woodrow Wilson was elected President, he asked FDR to serve as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Later, as Governor, FDR continued to create the prototype of the New Deal.

Robert F. Wagner, Sr. was an Assemblyman and later a State Senator who helped pass legislation to set up a workers compensation system, building safety reforms after the Triangle Shirt Factory fire, labor standards, and affordable housing. He went on to the US Senate where he was a key ally of President Franklin Roosevelt in the creation of the New Deal.

It is hard, today, to envision future students of state history drawing inspiration from the record of this session of the legislature. We can't expect every age to give us an Al Smith, an FDR, or a Robert F. Wagner. I would settle for Warren Anderson, Earl Brydges, or Joseph Zaretzki. None are household names today, but the names we all know - Malcolm, Pedro, Hiram, and Dean - are associated with the lowest, most base, and demeaning politics in our nation.

Recently I wrote to defend clowns and the circus world from being compared to the State Senate of New York. Given their continuing antics, actually, abuse of office, I think it is only fitting to declare that from this day on, the worst thing you can say about someone will be, "You deserve a seat in the State Senate in Albany."