State’s Political Power Gives Way to Show Biz

PHILADELPHIA—The last time Republicans gathered in this city, they nominated a New Yorker with a mustache to be their Presidential candidate. Though he would never have suspected it, Thomas E. Dewey was to be the last New Yorker to win a major-party Presidential nomination in the 20th century.

Other New Yorkers have sought the office in the nearly half century since Dewey. Nelson Rockefeller discovered that there are some things in life that even a man with his last name can’t buy. Rocky’s great Republican nemesis, John Lindsay, decided that his yearning for the White House could be satisfied only by changing parties, but during the 1976 Presidential primaries, the Democrats offered him the kind of welcome the British gave Benedict Arnold: formal and without affection. Representative Shirley Chisholm of Brooklyn declared herself a candidate for President in 1972 on the basis of what-the-hell. She is now the answer to a political trivia question: Who was the first African-American woman to seek a major-party Presidential nomination? Jack Kemp, adopted citizen of western New York, tried to make a go of it in 1988. As a Presidential candidate, he is best remembered as a onetime football hero.

In 1948, New York was the Virginia of the 20th century, home and training ground of Presidents and Presidential contenders. Four New York Governors had run for President since Theodore Roosevelt accidentally found himself President in 1901, and the Democratic Party from 1928 to 1944 nominated nobody except New York Governors (Alfred E. Smith in 1928, and then Franklin Roosevelt four times). Dewey ran twice; his first race, in 1944, marked what turned out to be the apogee of New York’s political power. The ’44 Presidential campaign featured one New York Governor (Dewey) running against another (Roosevelt). The all–New York Presidential campaign of 1944 seemed almost natural at the time. Upon reflection, however, it now seems extraordinary–though the all-Texas Republican ticket of this year is extraordinary, too, and historians may well decide that its emergence marked the time when the Northeast in general, and New York in particular, gave way to the sons and daughters of the Sun Belt and the suburbs.

New York could not have expected to fend off the colossus of the West, California, in the postwar years. But its fall from political prominence has been stunning, especially when eyes are turned westward to New Jersey, which produced two would-be Presidential candidates this year, Bill Bradley and Steve Forbes.

Where are the New York Presidential candidates of yore? Find the center of power in New York and you will have your answer. As the country’s media and financial center in a world gone global, New York no longer acts as though politics–particularly gritty local politics–matters. Since the city’s brush with bankruptcy, economics have taken precedence over politics. And in New York now, the barons and baronesses of international media and entertainment have higher profiles than, say, the Governor.

An absurdly extravagant party that Michael Bloomberg threw for the New York media on July 30, designed to pay homage to Governor George Pataki, illustrated the point. Actually, some partygoers were persuaded that it was Mr. Bloomberg himself, a man not without political ambition, who wished reporters to think kindly of him. Gathered in a restaurant converted from an old bank, with heroic windows and high ceilings, were bureau chiefs and City Hall reporters and television correspondents–but not the party activists, alternate delegates and state legislators who may one day be asked to gather signatures or make phone calls or twist arms on Mr. Bloomberg’s behalf. Yes, there were a few actual politicians in attendance: former Senator Alfonse D’Amato (grayer around the temples now, and slim enough to look almost gaunt) and the irrepressible Representative Peter King, possessor of the largest hands in modern convention history. But this was an event of, by and for the media.

Outside the restaurant, the flotsam and jetsam of such events hovered in hopes of spying the media celebrities they associate with displays of New York power. And perhaps they had it right, for New York’s power these days is measured not in electoral votes–the state’s total has been heading south at a rapid pace for 30 years–but in the hype and cant of the modern media statelet that the city has become. Power in New York is measured by the audiences, not the districts, that one can deliver. Mr. Bloomberg, whose ambitions, it was whispered during the party, extend to the Executive Mansion in Albany, was shrewd enough to know that his money was best spent courting the media, not the delegates housed just around the corner from the festivities.

Politics once mattered in New York, and we had the Presidential candidates to prove it.

Now, it’s just show business, baby.