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Why Carl Paladino’s apology is so important

Carl Paladino speaks to members of the media

Carl Paladino speaks to members of the media at Trump Tower in Manhattan on Dec. 5, 2016. Credit: AP

Before there was Donald Trump there was Carl Paladino.

The brash Democrat-turned-Republican-New York-businessman — Paladino that is — entered the 2010 Republican primary for governor as an angry, roof-nail-spitting, billionaire bomb-thrower.

GOP primary voters ate it up.

It was clear from the outset that Paladino was no politician: He swore; he shouted; he came across as half-mad or half-cocked, depending on the day.

His antics made great news copy.

Paladino, who can be old-world charming at times, hated the press corps and told them so explicitly in long, colorful emails that became news in their own right. His orange-and-black lawn signs featured a visceral message: “I’m Mad Too, Carl!”

The campaign couldn’t print them fast enough to meet demand.

Nothing slowed Paladino down in his surprise primary win over the traditional conservative Republican candidate, former Long Island congressman Rick Lazio. Forwarded racist and pornographic emails — one depicting bestiality — were shrugged off by voters who had grown sick to death of over-groomed politicians, political correctness and poll-driven polemics. To them, Paladino was what was missing in modern politics: Warts and all, he was authentic.

Paldino fell short in the 2010 general election. Far short. But he had won a victory of sorts in the minds of many; he had eschewed political correctness — let’s be real; he kicked it with a golf shoe — and remained unbowed and unapologetic under intense editorial criticism.

It made him a legend of sorts in Western New York.

There’s no way Paladino’s 2010 primary performance went unnoticed by a certain occupant of Trump Tower. Better known, more successful and with access to the national news media and millions of Twitter devotees, Trump had always benefited from being a colorful and occasionally outrageous figure. But with rare exception did he cross the threshold of accepted norms in the way Paladino had — until June 2015 when Trump announced his candidacy for president from the lobby of his midtown residence.

From that day forward, Trump channeled his inner Paladino, and just like the Buffalonian, it won him a Republican primary. (Interestingly, Trump and Paladino scored similar percentages of the New York general election vote — Trump got around 36 percent; Paladino just over 34.)

What was most disconcerting about Trump’s candidacy to many Americans, including this one, was the success of these tactics. This was more than a rejection of political correctness, it was a shredding of the basic rules of public discourse. Without them, we risk serious societal devolution. Would there be no minimum level of decorum going forward, and what would that mean for the country?

Paladino was the canary in the coal mine last week when he let loose a stream of vitriol against President Barack Obama and, especially, Mrs. Obama in an email to a Buffalo alt-weekly. No need to reprint his remarks here, but suffice it to say, they were mean-spirited and glaringly racist. In light of the presidential election, I fully expected Paladino to remain defiant amid the backlash.

But then a miracle happened. Two actually. The incoming Trump administration swiftly and uncategorically denounced Paladino’s statements as “reprehensible,” saying they “serve no place in our public discourse.” And then, after several days of equivocation, Paladino apologized, though he’s resisting calls to resign an elected-school board seat. “I could not have made a worse choice in the words I used to express my feelings,” he said as part of a longer statement.

Paladino’s apology was awkward and lacking in full contrition, and yet there was grace in it for anyone willing to listen. But more important it announced the survival of our better angels heading into 2017, the sweetest music to this American’s ears.

A lot of people are angry at Paladino right now. I am deeply grateful to him. He may have just reset the norm.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.