Politics is a great test of character: What will a politician say or do to get to wherever s/he wants to go? Where is the bottom line? Is there one?
Nowhere is a politician’s character tested as visibly and severely than in an election campaign. The office holder generally has the time, space, and privacy to bob and weave, tack and trim; the campaign is a desperate, winner-take-all, loser-go-home affair.
My wife and I began as Hillary Clinton supporters. Four more years of Republican misrule would finish the country and neither of us thought Obama could win a general election. (Sometimes The People surprise and delight you.) A reporter asked Hillary “You said you’d take Senator Obama at his word that he’s not…a Muslim. You don’t believe that he’s…,”
“No. No, there is nothing to base that on. As far as I know.”
We looked at one another and decided almost simultaneously that as much as we respected her intelligence and determination, and as crucial as it was to get the Republicans out, for us at least, she had failed the test of character. We didn’t see a bottom line. On reflection, maybe we judged her too harshly. It was a bad moment in a brutal campaign.
But character counts and it counts a lot in politics. Smart is only the ante. Everybody – or almost everybody – is smart enough. If you’ve got character and judgment, you can hire smart. For too long, the country has needed smart leaders with character. We finally have a brilliant president with character. We will know soon enough whether “the American people deserve” him. (Whenever you hear a politician use that phrase, check your wallet.)
And that brings me to Michael Bloomberg and the New York Times. If political campaigns test the character of candidates, they do the same for newspapers, especially those whose owners and editors lay claim to journalistic respectability.
Three items that appeared in Saturday’s New York Times brought the character question into sharp focus, the first two as it applies to the paper itself, and the third for Bloomberg—although for me that question was settled long ago .
First, there was the front page piece on how much Bloomberg had spent to gain and hold office, second, was the Bloomberg editorial endorsement, and then there was Bob Herbert’s column on the recent Bloomberg race-baiting gambit.
The spending piece was headlined Mayor’s Political Quest is Costliest Ever in U.S.
It was the usual thing about how Bloomberg’s political spending contrasted with Thompson’s lack of it. Sandwiched between them and the color item on the vast amounts of Goodfellas Brick Oven Pizza the mayor buys to feed his campaign legions (and, hah, hah, how good a boost the pizza money is for the economy of Staten Island) was the obligatory statement from a well known attorney for the New York Public Interest Research Group on Bloomberg’s undermining of municipal democracy. I don’t know what he actually said to the reporter, but what got into print was only the campaign spending.
Well trodden territory, not worth the ink or the time to read it. But the story didn’t matter. It was all about the picture. There it was, the large, front-page photograph of “Just Mike,” the regular guy, standing alongside Colin Powell at the counter of a hot dog joint. The mayor was reaching across the counter, his gloved hand clutching a few dollars. Surrounded by reporters scribbling and cameramen clicking, according to the caption Bloomberg was “treating Colin Powell to a hot dog.” A giant front-page photo op. A good follow-up to front-page piece on Bloomberg The Golfer that the paper ran a couple of months ago.
Maybe before Bloomberg, when she was a bit younger, the old gray lady rolled over for a politician now and then, but if she was ever this obscene, I don’t remember it. What an embarrassment it must be for the real reporters who are still working there.
The sadness one feels watching Colin Powell, a once-trusted public figure, an American icon really, debase himself yet again in the service of yet another nasty and corrupt Republican politician is overshadowed by the contempt we feel for the leadership of a once great newspaper. They accelerate their race to the bottom, seemingly positioning the paper as a kind of New York Post with subtitles, like Murdoch and Zuckerman, and all the other banksters, leveraged buyout artists and real estate scamsters, eager for four more years of Bloomberg’s rule.
Then there is the endorsement. We won’t go over the old, tired ground. But there are one or two statements that deserve special attention.
“With little city money to spend,” Bloomberg we are told, “wants to focus more on helping working-class and middle-class residents with cheap banking or aid in fighting foreclosures or finding jobs and housing. He wants to give a lift to small businesses.”
Readers are urged to take a look at our report, Michael Bloomberg v. The People of New York City: The Spin v. The Facts.
There you’ll find out what Michael Bloomberg has done not only with his money but with our money as well, and what he has been doing to – not for – working-class and middle-class New Yorkers.
As for term limits, here is the editorial:
Mr. Thompson also argues that the mayor unfairly worked to get rid of term limits so that he could run this third time. We supported his efforts to do so because term limits unfairly limit voters’ choices. But the mayor has sent signals that once he is elected, he will set up a charter commission to try to restore the limits. That is a bad call.
The paper was always opposed to term limits, but here is what it said in June 2008.
As good a mayor as Mr. Bloomberg has been, we are wary of changing the rules just to suit the ambition of a particular politician — in this country or any other. Mr. Bloomberg, should he want to continue his public service, would make an excellent prospect for other important offices.
The editorial talked about education, affordable housing, the environment, and all the other good things Bloomberg has done for us or intends to do. Again, we urge you to take a look at Michael Bloomberg v. The People of New York City: The Spin v. The Facts.
The paper’s saving grace is its columnists, among whom Bob Herbert is one of the best. But here is an excerpt from his Saturday column. “It was truly disheartening, dismaying,” he wrote, “to have the mayor turn his back on all that last Sunday during an appearance with Mr. Giuliani before an Orthodox Jewish group in Borough Park, Brooklyn.”
The “all that” to which Herbert referred was that until this campaign, Bloomberg hadn’t played the race game. Of course he hadn’t–at least not the Guiliani race game.
Since taking office, Bloomberg has positioned himself as the non-Giuliani, a uniter, not a divider. He didn’t need an opinion poll to tell him that that this was the best, the only political posture. New Yorkers had had their Rizzo moment—eight years of police killings and broomstick sodomizing. They were tired of it. It was time for “healing.” And the bloodless Bloomberg made a good contrast to the over-the-top Giuliani and the out of uniform police thugs whom he had led in a City Hall race riot against David Dinkins.
But it’s election time and you gotta do what you gotta do, which means ratcheting thing up. So Bloomberg raised the specter of New York becoming another Detroit if the Orthodox Jews were to be so foolish as to fail to turn out for Bloomberg. And his bride for the day, who is readying himself for a Bloomberg-financed state campaign, said “you know exactly what I’m talking about.” Indeed we did — a black mugger lurking behind every shul. Don’t vote for Bloomberg, and you’ll get another David Dinkins, and the blacks will run riot, a shameful piece of race-baiting that’s right up there with Al Shanker’s mass distribution of a crude anti-Semitic pamphlet during the Ocean-Hill Brownsville era, or the Giuliani-led police riot against Dinkins, a man who throughout his career, say what you want about his management skills, showed great integrity and courage in his opposition to Farrakhan and other prominent anti-Semites.
It’s election time, and so it’s Giuliani time again, time for a little race-baiting. Bloomberg tries to keep a low profile on it, delivering the message only in receptive neighborhoods. But it doesn’t surprise anyone who has been on the wrong end of Bloomberg’s eight-year reign. It doesn’t surprise the hundreds of thousands of young black and Latino kids who are illegally stopped and frisked, the kids who have no criminal records and who are illegally arrested for trespassing in their own housing complexes because they aren’t carrying identification papers, it doesn’t surprise the kids and the teachers who are subjected to frequent abusive and unrestrained police behavior in the public schools, or the people who have been arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana (New York City is now the marijuana arrest capital of the country encouraged by a mayor who has said he has smoked and enjoyed it “You bet I did.”) — all these things and more – occur out of sight of the middle class.
Ray Kelly handles that stuff, and the New York Times has given the mayor and Kelly a pass. The paper will have to report it, but they’ll call it a “blemish.” A softball mention now and then allows the paper’s editors to proclaim their virtue and issue the formulaic rejoinder at those journalism seminars: “How would you know about it unless we reported it?” The truth is that the New York Times readers don’t “know” in the sense of understanding as a meaningful political fact what Bloomberg has been up to. Just as they didn’t “know” about routine police brutality until the police raided the Columbia University campus in the 1960s and put the truncheons to the heads of their own kids.
So long as the paper continues to run front page features like the Colin Powell hot dog style story and attaches the “life-long Democrat” label to the mayor’s name to assuage the sensibilities of readers who need assurance that they are still progressives, Bloomberg will sail along. So long as the boomers and their offspring are told that Bloomberg isn’t really one of those nasty Republicans who fly around in private jets to their mansions all over the world, pushing deregulation and privatization, making billions and billions more, feasting off the Wall Street scams, paying for plenty of law and order and light on the civil liberties please, embracing and financing Bush, McCain, Pataki, Bruno and the Boyz, the readers will continue to think of him as a moderate, even liberal fellow, just “Mike” whose watching the cash register and wants to do good things for working-and middle-class folks.
Bloomberg’s election campaign race-baiting is a piece of and entirely consistent with a much larger and more important pattern of behavior. Isn’t it apparent to anyone who has watched how — and for whom — this mayor has governed, and how he has bribed and bullied his way into political power that Michael Bloomberg has no bottom line other than Michael Bloomberg? That someone as astute and principled as Bob Herbert seems to have fallen for the spin is what really dismays and disheartens me.
– Neil Fabricant