It soon became apparent to the audience that either Gov. Hugh Carey was in the wrong place or his speech was.
“I gave him the wrong speech,” says Mike Rinella, an aide to Carey for much of his two terms. “Somebody forgot the speech. So I ran out to the limo and grabbed the wrong one and gave it to him.”
The governor that day was headliner at something to do with Albany’s long-dormant rail station, and he would be a minute or three into the script before he realized that hey, I’m not supposed to be saying these things, not at this place, at least.
“I walked back to the Capitol,” says Rinella; “no way was I riding back in that limo.”
He never heard a word about the screwup, not until two months later when they’re flying back from a campaign stop in Buffalo — this was ’78, and Carey was running again — and the governor starts going up and down the narrow aisle of the 13-seat, state-owned plane delivering little critiques of each staffer.
“And you,” he says, face all red, to Rinella, “you are trying to get me defeated or impeached or both, giving me the wrong speech.” Carey had not forgotten; he simply stored things up, preferring to get it all off his chest in one big tirade.
Since last weekend when he died, they’ve been telling these little Carey tales to one another, often with pint in hand.
Critics said he was too detached, with not enough attention to detail, that he enjoyed the juice of the grape too much or that he was more Brooklyn clubhouse pol than statesman. These all may have been accurate to varying degrees. But Hugh Leo Carey also was the best governor in the latter half of the last century. It’s not even close: Rocky gave us a world-class university and he bankrupted us; Wilson was a comma between administrations; Cuomo the Elder provided beautiful rhetoric and a seat-belt law; and Pataki was most helpful in New York’s quest for mediocrity. And the first two guys of this new century … c’mon, let’s get serious.
Carey rescued New York, city and state, from the abyss when others, like Gerald Ford, thought it would make for a powerful morality tale were both allowed to fall into the pit. Still, people either forgot or ignored what Carey did or were inclined to add “yeah, but.”
In their new book, “The Man Who Saved New York,” Seymour Lachman and Robert Polner say it: “Although often underappreciated by the public, it was Carey’s force of will, wit, intellect, judgment and experience that allowed the state to survive this unparalleled ordeal and ultimately to emerge on a stronger footing.”
“Hugh Carey was the smartest, toughest, most principled man I ever knew,” says Rinella, who now works in infrastructure finance in Albany and Washington. “Unlike a lot of politicians who are one way in public and another way behind closed doors, Carey was exactly the same way no matter who was looking. And let me tell you something: when Gov. Carey was in those meetings to save the city, there was no doubt who was in charge. David Rockefeller, Felix Rohatyn, I don’t care who it was there, he was the governor and he was the man making the decisions.”
But there also was the silliness that kept us coming back for more. The offer to drink the glass of PCB-contaminated water to demonstrate how hysterical the governor said some state workers had become. And, yes, he painted his hair orange right around the time that he was courting Evangeline Gouletas, the Chicago millionaire, who, after having finally accounted for her ex-husbands, would marry Carey, who was left a widower with a large Irish brood in the Executive Mansion.
I remember watching coverage of the wedding with my mother and aunt, whom I used as news barometers at times, and hearing my mother mutter, “silly old fool,” as Carey, orange hair and all, and his bride stood up through the moonroof of the white limo to wave at fans. How shocked we all were to learn of the annulment!
“For me,” says Rinella, “it was like being enrolled in the best graduate school ever, learning from the best teacher ever and getting paid for it. He could be tough; screw up and he laid the wood on you. But Hugh Carey also was shy and kind and he cared about his staff. He would read you the riot act, but if an outsider said anything negative, Carey was the first to defend you. I can remember one night in Washington, after he had laid into me about eight times that day, and he says ‘Where would you like to have dinner?’ and I start looking around, like ‘who’s he talking to?’ I never met anyone like him.”
As for me, my earliest contacts with Carey came just after he took office in ’75. I was anchoring and producing a 15-minute newscast on Sunday nights, and despite its brevity, it still was a challenge because Sundays (pre-Chuck Schumer) were often news-less. So I would call New York Aviation each week and ask the people who flew the governor what time he was flying out. No, they would say, the governor’s coming in from New York City, not going out, and he’s due at 3:45. So I would drag the cameraman to the airport and we would get our tiny “exclusive,” an interview with the governor as he got off the plane. This went on for several weeks, until finally Carey asks this reporter for the Times Union, “who the hey is this fat son-of-a-b---- who keeps coming out to the airport and ruining my Sunday afternoons?” And I swear I was not even that heavy at the time.