Simon St.Laurent: December 2007 Archives

The ghost of Nathan Miller


Albany, NY - In the New York Governor's race, voters narrowly supported Democrat Ricardo Wagner, who ran a nostalgic campaign promising the same kind of government that his great-great-grandfather Robert F. Wagner Jr. had given New York City in the 1950s. Wagner won 48% of the vote on the Democratic and Working Families lines, while Republican James Rivington fell short with 46%. Conservative Party candidate Charles Griffin received 6% of the vote.

The race had been seen as an Upstate-Downstate battle until late in the race, when Griffin ran a series of ads questioning whether Rivington was "really from Upstate? Really real?" and briefly catapulted himself to 25% in the polls. While Griffin fell back quickly as the election grew closer, Rivington spent much of the rest of the campaign explaining just how much time he had spent on the family farm outside of Palmyra and why he had chosen to go to college in New York City, staying there for a decade while he began his medical career.

Wagner began the race burdened by the scandals of his predecessor, Burton McKinsey, under whom he had served quietly as Lieutenant Governor. His refusal to condemn several long-time friends after their indictment had raised concerns that he would continue his predecessor's practices, though Wagner's insistence that accounting errors rather than misconduct were at issue may have soothed nervous voters.

Rivington, in an unusual move, made his concession speech under a projected portrait of Nathan Miller, Governor of New York from 1921 to 1922, and the last Governor from Upstate. While congratulating Wagner for his victory, he called on "Upstate voters to recognize the damage they have done to themselves time after time, failing to support their own candidates of either party and ruining their ability to participate in New York's political conversation."

College money


[Written by Ellen Edgerton.]

Do you remember the money near the end of the Ivy Wars (as we called them here)? I think that was the worst of a very low point in our history. It was ironic that Orangebacks were the first college-printed currency in New York, considering how people in Ithaca were printing their own money decades earlier. If you were caught with Cornell money -- or God forbid, outside money -- you would be in big trouble. I suppose "trouble" depended on your station. If you were a townie or staff you'd be fined (and of course, the outside money would be "confiscated as evidence" - how convenient!); but if you were a student or faculty or administrator, you'd be publicly denounced in the University Senate -- and at the very worst points, a couple students were expelled as examples. Calling it "Cornell money" was even a bit of a thoughtcrime. Now Syracuse money was good old "orangebacks," but Cornell's was derisively called "Scarlet Scrip" or "Cornell Scrip" or "Carnies."

Of course, it was ALL company scrip. You couldn't use it anywhere else but on Campus (but who ever left Campus in those days?) and you couldn't buy computers or non-GMO food from any other places but Bookstore outlets that would only take scrip. Although parking permits -- those had to be paid in cash or whatever else was valuable off-Campus. Of course, they don't call them parking permits any more -- wisely, the Trustees finally figured out that was too demeaning and obsolete. Now they are called taxes, a serviceable old word. Better to call them taxes than what our movement wanted to call them.

It took townies 27 years to make the journey from organizing the first (sadly ineffective) protests for parking permit waivers, to fomenting the Free Tuition Movement. I always thought it was a bad name for the movement - it wasn't "free tuition" we wanted, it was the right to join the student-class. It was a complete paradigm shift, utterly threatening to the status quo, that our parking permit money could be called something else ("tuition") and that we would receive fair credit for our life experience. What was the difference between a fee and tuition? Nothing. What was the difference between life experience and a degree program? Nothing. To just... admit the truth, waive the credits. Or rather, change their whole meaning. Audacious. Can you imagine?

It was too radical in the end, and in the end they shut it down. In the end, the threats to the old order were just too powerful. Don't be mistaken -- the student-class weren't against us. That is a big misconception - but then again, faculty write the history books, don't they? The students were maybe not for us, but not against us either. But even the Trustees figured out that it wouldn't do to have townies figuring out ways to break through the university-networks and talking to each other. Too much was at stake. Finally, the olive branches were secretly extended, the satellite state-schools were horse-traded between the Big Four, and plans were devised for the gleaming joint centers that would be built on top of the most troublesome neighborhoods in Ithaca and Syracuse.

You remember it as Peace in Our Time... the exalted marriage of Red and Orange... "the inevitable upward progress of human intellectual growth, a triumph of soulfulness and knowledge, a new era of academic excellence." You don't want to go back to the bad old days when there were too many townies who weren't even staff-class. But I'm just telling you what the price was for that, who paid it, and what that was really all about.

Farewell to a Giant


I was pleasantly surprised to be invited to give Schuyler Livingston's eulogy - and even more surprised to learn that it was at his request. We last spoke ten years ago, a painful parting at the end of a struggle in which he was forced out of MorganChaseCiti. Since then, New York City and State have suffered terribly from the problems he thought he had defeated when he was Governor.

Given Schuyler's reputation for hounding his bosses and most of a Legislature out of their jobs, it may be a surprise that Schuyler didn't have a mean streak. He just said what he meant compulsively, which regularly lost him friends among people who preferred to keep the truth at a safe distance.

I've known Schuyler since our first day at Groton, though he only stayed there for a year - his father filed, quite dramatically, for bankruptcy, and Schuyler finished his schooling at Bronx Science. We both went to Columbia, where he originally planned to be a doctor, but somehow we both wound up at Cornell Law School. Fortunately, his brilliance made all of these schools want him as a student.

His early years on Wall Street were remarkable, a rise fueled by his warnings that various kinds of transactions carried consequences the firm wouldn't want to face later. He was repeatedly sidelined and then brought back and promoted, as warning after warning came true. He reached the boardroom after his predecessor was hauled away in handcuffs for a complex scheme that boiled down to bribing an accounting firm's partners to okay a series of transactions. His father's bankruptcy had left him incapable of tolerating corruption, especially financial corruption.


That lack of tolerance for corruption also left him deeply concerned about New York State. Perhaps hoping to distract him, his peers on Wall Street helped him to a seat on the 2024 State Financial Investigative Commission. After a few meetings, he rapidly changed course, and by 2029 had decided to run for Governor. He won the 2030 election by a tiny margin against an incumbent who had disgraced himself repeatedly.

His first few years were rocky, to say the least. The Legislature considered him sanctimonious, to put it mildly, and refused to cooperate with his strivings toward a balanced budget. They called him the Pope, mocking him for both his religious beliefs and his politics. His first term was pretty much a fiery trainwreck - I believe I'm allowed to say that, since I was his chief of staff.

I suspect you're all hoping that I'll have something to say about Saratoga, perhaps even something new. Schuyler had warned me not to share anything more about it until he was gone, but now I can safely tell you that it was the most carefully planned scandal in history, combining his fondness for practical jokes with his need to create a public sense of scandal about a system that had been broken for centuries without anyone much caring.

If he were to be a Pope, we decided, he should be a Renaissance Pope.

Since the Legislature had been behaving more and more scandalously for decades without consequence, Schuyler decided it was time to create a scandal on the Governor's side, one that would demand public attention but quickly reflect badly on the Legislature. Schuyler's squeaky-clean reputation would insure that there were plenty of shockwaves, and the timing had to fit perfectly with the 2034 election.

Saratoga was our opportunity - specifically the Speaker's Ball, at the close of the August 2034 racing season. Speaker Dalton sent out his usual invitations for 1200, including fifty invitations sent somewhat grudgingly to the Governor's office for distribution to the Executive Branch. Rather than giving them to department heads, of course, we contacted Marina Tariva, the proprietress of Albany Elite Escorts, and hired 47 of her finest escorts for the Ball. (She was apparently interested in retiring in any case.) They were only there to escort - it was a perfectly legal transaction.

About an hour into the Ball, I escorted his wife into the event, which brought over a few photographers wondering what was going on. Schuyler, as you doubtless know, came in a few minutes later. He was acting rather strangely, bringing 47 beautiful women to a dance attended by many of their regular clients. I'm sure that you've all seen the videotape of the resulting mayhem when the Governor presented them to the Speaker, calling "their graceful presence an appropriate gift to the Legislature for the quality and nature of the Legislature's work, a true reflection of how things get done in New York."

Bad taste, indeed. The media had no idea what to make of it, except to suggest that the Governor had gone mad. The Legislature went berserk, as we'd hoped, setting up impeachment proceedings that we encouraged with generously planted leaks. We had chosen the Governor's guests carefully - I'm still not sure what had enraged Ms. Tariva so severely and made her so interested in cooperating with us - and the scandal grew and grew. Their early rush to impeach the Governor for his insult proved a terrible idea, as the subsequent trial made the Legislature look terrible, in ways that made for attention-grabbing headlines.

That November proved that the electorate could understand a joke, throwing out the worst of the Old Guard, and we finally had a Legislature we could work with. We were happy to hear that there were unexpected rockslides on Bear Mountain on election night, a sign that the world was really changing.

We had to work quickly - New York was sinking fast. The crash in the dollar had weakened Wall Street's importance, and firms had been moving their operations away for decades. New York City's prestige as the center of media empires was withering rapidly, as the share of English in the worldwide market dwindled, and fashion just kept falling further and further behind. Poverty was up - the wealth needed to pay for social services was down. Schuyler's predecessors had already sold off - of course, I mean "outsourced" - many of the state's assets, from the former State University system to the Department of Motor Vehicles. There wasn't much left to work with, though no one had managed to sell off the Barge Canal successfully.

Schuyler poured money into education in ways the state had never seen. He couldn't recover the old SUNY system, but he built new tuition-free schools of finance in Lower Manhattan and Buffalo, schools of communications in Midtown Manhattan and Syracuse, a much larger fashion school in the old Garment District, and, to maintain some balance, schools of agriculture in Lockport and Poughkeepsie. Attendees could come from anywhere, if they met the admissions criteria - but they had to agree to work in New York State for the next five years, or tuition wouldn't be free.

The expensive gamble paid off - talent first poured into these schools as highly paid professors, and then students followed from all over the state, the country, and the world. The five-year rule ensured that companies would have a large pool of well-trained employees, and over time, more and more of these students chose to stay in a revitalized New York, all over the state.

He also got the Barge Canal operating again at a time when energy prices were climbing, though few people seem to realize how much that did to keep New York City going at a time when it was on the edge.

By the end of his second term, it was clear that his vision had made a difference, and by the end of his third term it looked like his eulogy might not even have to mention Saratoga. It was time for a new challenge, and Schuyler decided to head back to Wall Street, where he could focus more directly on a key industry for New York.

His return to Wall Street was rocky. Hailed as a conquering hero, he was quickly hired by the newly formed MorganChaseCiti as Chairman. The Board hoped that he could help create a cleaner image for a firm created out of necessity, as each member company had suffered major losses and scandals. For a while, it worked, and Schuyler was even able to expand their workforce in both New York City and Buffalo, taking advantage of the systems he'd set up.

Unfortunately, we all know what happened next. The National Bankruptcy led quickly to the Second Dollar Crash, and it was hard to take the United States seriously when 125 dollars suddenly bought a single Euro coin. New York State itself barely avoided bankruptcy, and the magic of the schools Schuyler had built dwindled as other places built competitors on similar lines, easily outspending us. New York City's collapse came more quickly than any of us anticipated, and the consequences Upstate were nearly as bleak. Businesses closed or left, leaving the remaining residents with shockingly little to do.

I'm not sure if Schuyler knew it was his last stand when he refused to move the company's headquarters to Shanghai, but it was clearly the end in any case. I stayed with the firm for a year wrapping up its departure before I left myself. Schuyler never forgave me for siding in the end with reality, however unfortunate, rather than with his visions.

He and Laura retreated here, to Tuxedo, and began work on this monastery. I fear that it may be Schuyler's final surviving monument, but it is a fitting conclusion to an extraordinary life, a heroic quest in the face of an imperfect world.

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This page is a archive of recent entries written by Simon St.Laurent in December 2007.

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