Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s race for the White House had a bad month. No sooner does he win re-election than he wears a dress and complains when someone else pays to plaster his name on every bus in New York. To revive his flagging campaign, he appeared at a conference sponsored by the Manhattan Institute to address the unfinished business of his first term-the economy and the structure of government. The conservative think tank has criticized his handling of both, so choosing that venue showed some courage.
For 50 years before his election, the Mayor said, the political philosophy of the city had been “aggressively antibusiness. That didn’t mean your policies were [necessarily] antibusiness, but you had to pretend they were.” This raised the question of whether Mayor Giuliani is pretending to be pro-business while his policies in fact are not so favorable, but no one was impolite enough to ask it, and he forged on.
He presented bar graphs to show what dramatic improvements he had made over his predecessors, but his bars represented declines in the rate of increase of public spending. A man falling off the Empire State Building would probably experience a decline in his rate of descent if he opened an umbrella, but that would not help him when he hit the pavement. The Mayor made much of ending the hotel occupancy tax-understandably, since it was the only tax he promised to end that he actually did abolish (the income tax surcharge remains). One questioner, after praising him highly, asked why only 5,000 building permits are issued per year-a rate that will renew the city’s housing stock in eight centuries, and then we probably will have to begin again. “We’ll look into it,” said the Mayor. One place to begin looking is rent control.
I don’t want to carp-any more than necessary. The Mayor said his most important economic development programs had been safety and quality of life. If the city is hospitable, “people will want to use it,” and that is certainly true. It is also true that New York’s old economic paradigm was making deals with big companies, going to Albany and Washington for handouts, and thinking of ways to spend more money, and that Mayor Giuliani has, in part, broken with it. But that is not the same as having an aggressive strategy for something better.
Wall Street has been raining money into the city’s coffers. Now that the market has gone back over 8,000, it looks as if the rain will continue for a while. But the business cycle is bound to turn again, some time in the Mayor’s second term. Will hopeful incrementalism be enough to weather the change?
This is why talk of Rudy in the White House is such a dangerous thing for New York. It does not affect the country one way or the other-he doesn’t have a prayer. But New Yorkers love to distract themselves with the national aspirations of their local politicians. We did it with John Lindsay and Mario Cuomo. Unlike them, Mayor Giuliani actually has done something hard-so how much more tempting will it be to indulge in daydreams?
The prospect of a New Yorker in the White House feeds our worst quality, our sez-who bozo-ness. I’m a New Yorker; I walk the mean streets; I kill 10 roaches before breakfast; there never was a scam that fooled me; you name it, I know it. We think like that because in many ways it is true. In so many areas of life-style, culture, money, attitude-New York shrinks every other place in America to burgs, Bedouin camps, hillbilly trailer parks. Rubes, turkeys-we beat them all. I went to a party for the second anniversary of George . Everyone, from the waiters to the editor, wore solid black. It wasn’t black tie, you didn’t have to write it on some invitation-we all turned up in black because we’re cool . Except for Ben Wattenberg, the host for PBS’s Think Tank who shlepped in from D.C. in a brown tweed jacket. Ben, Ben-get thee to a greenroom.
But unfortunately for us, our predominance is not universal. There are some things we don’t know, many of them having to do with politics and public life. Sometimes reality smacks us in the head, and we realize our deficiencies. But the least thing tempts us to revert. If the Mayor runs for higher office, we, and he, will be distracted from the job at hand.
If you want proof of our backwardness in public life, consider the fact that the Rev. Al Sharpton is simultaneously being sued for defamation in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and being touted to run for Congress in Brooklyn. (The reverend also was at the George party, resplendent in a black suit, his turtlenecks and medallions a thing of the past. You can dress ’em up …) Our former Mayor, David Dinkins, thinks Mr. Sharpton would make a good public official. From lawbreaker to lawmaker, as the candidate himself might say.
The line on Mr. Sharpton is that he has gone mainstream since the Tawana Brawley case, though in fact he has degenerated. Back then, he and her other defenders simply tried to kill a man’s reputation. At the protest of Freddy’s Fashion Mart, Mr. Sharpton’s last failed foray in public debate, one of his colleagues-in-protest actually killed people.
Mr. Sharpton has cast the issue of the defamation case as one of “advocacy.” This suggests that he knows he lied through his teeth, and he is trying to buck the case into the realm of free expression. We can trace the evolution of our law in cases argued in upstate New York. In 1803-4, in a famous case tried in Albany, Alexander Hamilton argued that seditious libel, or abuse of public officials, was legal so long as it was true. Now Mr. Sharpton argues that lies are legal so long as they abuse public figures.
There are plenty of places in America that send rogues no better than Mr. Sharpton to office (Chicago, Louisiana). Sometimes they achieve national office (Arkansas). But this means we’re back in the pack. We have as much to learn about government as the bridge-and-tunnel crowd.