The Magazine

THE BETSY

Jul 27, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 44 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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Seneca Falls, New York


It is around lunch time one weekday in mid-July, and Betsy McCaughey Ross, the lieutenant governor of New York, is addressing a rally sponsored by the National Organization for Women in the tiny upstate town of Seneca Falls. Ross has spent much of her speech emphasizing her commitment to legal abortion -- "the right to choose," says the former constitutional scholar, "is the most fundamental right of all" -- and is finishing up her remarks with an appeal to female solidarity. Thanks to the fact that men control Congress, Ross explains, health insurers will soon be required to cover the cost of Viagra, but not of contraceptives. It takes a second for the news to sink in, then the crowd erupts in howls of outrage.


As it turns out, Ross is wrong (it is the Clinton administration, not Congress, that has sought to mandate Viagra coverage), but her listeners, a couple of hundred feminists gathered in a concrete square grandly named the Women's Rights National Historic Park, don't seem to notice, and Ross continues. "Just imagine," she says, "a Congress dominated by women, barring men from access to Viagra." Many in the audience leap to their feet, waving signs and cheering. "Well," Ross yells, "make it happen!"


Even in a Democratic primary in New York, it's unusual to hear a candidate openly woo the pro-impotence vote, though somehow it's not surprising when Betsy Ross does it. Five years ago, Ross was an obscure conservative academic with a think-tank job. A couple of articles in the New Republic later, she became one of the best-known critics of the Clinton health-care plan. Shortly after, she was chosen by Republican gubernatorial candidate George Pataki to be his running mate. Last fall, Ross switched parties, and she is now competing against three other Democrats for the chance to challenge Pataki in the fall. You might expect New York Republicans to feel angry and betrayed by Ross's defection to the other party. But they don't appear to. Instead they seem relieved.


Ross began alienating fellow Republicans almost immediately after joining the Pataki ticket in 1994. Less than a month before the election, for instance, Ross met with Sen. Al D'Amato at the 21 Club in Manhattan. In conversation, D'Amato jokingly explained how the Pataki campaign might win the support of the city's mayor. "I've got the way to get Giuliani on our side," D'Amato told Ross. "You'll make him an offer he can't refuse." Chances are, D'Amato did not intend the remark as a sexist slur, though that is how McCaughey apparently characterized it later to reporters. D'Amato, who was Pataki's political mentor and most powerful supporter, was forced to make a humiliating apology.


It got worse from there. Ross publicly criticized Pataki's early-education and medical-spending initiatives. A year into the job, she began raising money for her own reelection fund. In January 1996, she created a minor scandal when she grabbed attention by ignoring her assigned seat and standing behind the governor for the duration of his 58-minute televised State of the State speech. Two months later, Pataki eliminated Ross's security detail, claiming she had used her bodyguards for personal errands. Ross responded by accusing Pataki of putting her life in danger. Soon after, Ross implied that the governor had tapped her office phone.


Meanwhile, Ross's increasingly odd behavior became a staple of the tabloid gossip pages. At one point, Ross found herself at the wrong end of a $ 5 million civil suit brought by a former housekeeper who claimed the lieutenant governor had threatened to kill her during a dispute over rearranging furniture. "She's flaky, genuinely flaky," says a former colleague. "She does strange things."


Strangest of all, perhaps, Ross began to make statements that indicated she had no idea why she had been chosen as Pataki's running mate. "The governor and I were elected together, and I owe the people of this state my best efforts," she told one reporter in apparent seriousness. Pataki, who had added Ross to the ticket merely as insurance against the gender gap, seemed confused by Ross's delusions of relevance.