Sunday, August 24, 2008


October 25, 2007

There is much about being a good mayor of New York that commends itself to being a good president of the United States. With a population of over eight million (more than Switzerland’s), a Gross Domestic Product of around $420 billion (more than Saudi Arabia’s), and an annual budget of $52 billion, New York could be a city-state, not just a city. The New York Police Department is more like a standing army, larger and better funded than many countries’ entire military and with bureaus in capitals throughout the globe. The mayor is an international figure, frequently abroad and often treated like a head of state.

But in addition to being chief executive, the mayor is expected by New Yorkers to be the city’s Everyman — not regally aloof but grittily involved. They want him on the spot at every emergency small and large, at every gas-leak or noxious smell, at the bedside — or the funeral — of every fallen cop and firefighter; they want him out there taking batting practice with the sand-lot hopefuls in Central Park, sampling an icee at a South Bronx push-cart or a garlic-dill at the Lower East Side’s Pickle Day; they want to see him scrunched into a child’s desk on the first day of school.

The mayor of New York is an icon of the city, the emblem of its identity and its self-esteem, and several mayors have become national icons, too: Fiorello La Guardia, guiding the city through the Depression and the War while reading the Sunday comic strips to the kids over the radio; and more recently, Ed Koch, leading thousands of stranded citizens over the Brooklyn Bridge to their jobs during a transit strike, and almost every day for eight years popping up all over the five boroughs to shake hands and ask, "How’m I doin’?"

So too, the president of the United States is the icon of the country. Beside and beyond all the policies and programs, it is the personal image the president projects that most affects our sense of identity and self-esteem, and the identity and esteem accorded it abroad.
Most of us would like to think we’re beyond that — that we weigh our mayors, our presidents, and our candidates rationally, on the basis of issues, not image — but in fact the mental process of evaluating our leaders and prospective leaders is to a great extent non-rational, intuitive, right-brained. We may try to puzzle out the newspapers’ comparison charts of candidates’ health-care proposals, but in the back our heads we treat these people, whom we’ve never seen in the flesh — much less had a chance to chat with — just as we do our co-workers, friends, and lovers.

Thus President Bush, who first won election as a compassionate conservative, the man you’d rather have a beer with, gradually alienated much of the country and most of the rest of the world, more by personality than by policy. By kicking back at the ranch after Hurricane Katrina struck, by ignoring the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq, by an on-the-air attitude of arrogance, flippancy, and often befuddlement, he has at the end become an embarrassment, an anti-icon, an image of America as the home of the shallow, the stupid, the self-obsessed.

It is this iconic, non-rational element in our appraisal of leaders that has given Rudolph Giuliani his paradoxical traction in the race for president. By any objective standard, he should simply be unelectable. His historical stances on gun control, gay rights, abortion, and immigration (on all of which he now waffles but does not wholly retract), not even to mention his tawdry personal life, should make him anathema to the Republican base, but they have not brushed him off. His more-of-the-same positions on everything from Iraq to environment to health care should make every Democrat and independent cringe, yet they are looking at him. He remains at the top of the Republican polls and the strongest contender in election-today hypotheticals against every Democratic opponent.

It’s the power of myth. When people need an idol, they will not check for clay feet. Even though on the policy page Giuliani is basically Bush, in the misty realm of icons he is the anti-Bush, the man who was on the spot at the World Trade Center, who didn’t get doe-eyed at the news, who brought the city and the country through the gravest assault on American soil since Pearl Harbor. He’s the man, you’d love to think, who’d have planted himself squarely on the field of the Superdome after Katrina and personally consoled every single military widow and widower: the Mayor of the United States.

Early in his campaign, most of the pundits predicted that Giuliani could not last, that he could not run on 9/11 alone. But he has played the terror card well, tapping into Americans’ lingering fears, and of late has broadened his mythic scope, portraying himself as the Man Who Cleaned Up New York and can clean up Washington too.

How sturdy is the Giuliani myth to New Yorkers?

There is no doubt that most, myself included, applauded his public persona on 9/11 and the days that followed. Many in fact, myself included, initially favored his own proposal to the state legislature that the newly-enacted term-limit law be waived and his name be put on the ballot in the November 2001 elections. Needing an anchor in the storm and fixed on the moment of terror, we experienced a temporary amnesia, forgetting the Giuliani we had come to know over the previous eight years and up to that point were glad to be rid of.

Response to overwhelming crisis is one thing, but most of life is day-to-day. How did he do with the day-to-day as mayor?

We’ll test the pre-9/11 myth in the next column.

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