Thursday, October 25, 2007

Hillary and Rudy

From 1868, when the Democrats chose ex-New York State governor Horatio Seymour as their presidential candidate, until 1948, when the Republicans did the same for the then current governor, Thomas E. Dewey, there was only one presidential election in an 80-year period in which when a New Yorker was not a major party candidate for national office. (The election of 1896 was the year without New Yorkers.)

Since 1948, the pickings have been slim, just three unsuccessful vice-presidential candidates from the Empire State; Republican William E. Miller in 1964, Democrat Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, and Republican Jack Kemp in 1996. (Since 1948, three Texans and two Californians have been elected president, which shows how the balance of power has shifted in this country.)

Things may change, and there is a good chance that in 2008 two New Yorkers, New York’s US Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, and former NYC mayor Rudolph Giuliani will be, respectively, the Democratic and Republican candidates for president. (This is not unprecedented, by the way, twice during the Pax Eboraca from 1868 to 1948, two New Yorkers did battle; 1904 when Theodore Roosevelt defeated Alton B. Parker of Cortland, New York—surely the most obscure major party candidate for president in the 20th century—and 1944, when FDR defeated Thomas E. Dewey.)

Giuliani is of course a native New Yorker, and though there have been (depending on how you count), seven or eight New York State residents elected president, only Teddy Roosevelt, sort of, is really identified with New York City. (And when you look over the presidents of the past century, very few are distinctly urban, and perhaps only JFK, with his Boston accent, and who not coincidently is the only non-Protestant of the lot, is strongly identified as an urbanite. I believe the last president to be mayor of a city was Grover Cleveland, who was mayor of Buffalo.)

But Giuliani has become a caricature of a caricature of a New Yorker, loud, opinionated, aggressive, given to flights of rhetorical asskickery and windbaggery, a taker of vast quantities of umbrage, a man who sees the problems of the world those of the Washington Heights and the South Bronx (c.1990) writ large, and for whom pissing off people with darker skins is seen as proof of one’s moral courage and clarity. One would have thought that even Republicans would be tired of politicians whose foreign policy consists entirely of threats and table thumping, but apparently not.

Hillary on the other hand is a non-native, though hardly the first person who moved to New York to seek career advancement. The president she is most like is Richard Nixon, who after eight years a subordinate role in the White House and a few msadventures, moved to New York City to plot his assent to the top of the greasy pole. There are also analogies to the well-remembered career of Chester Alan Arthur, a Vermont adventurer who achieved fame and fortune as a Manhattan lawyer, and Thomas E. Dewey, who came to New York City in his twenties to seek his fame as an opera singer, but ended up going to law school.

But if Giuliani is aggressive, Hillary’s dominant characteristic is acute intelligence in pursuit of blandness. But this has become one of the main distinctions between the parties on the highest levels, angry and furious Republicans and bland Democrats bursting with equanimity. This is not to say there are not scads of angry Democrats, but the party has been, at least since the beginning of the Iraq War, trying to restrain the anger with a levee of reasonableness, forever afraid that the party's "base" will go Katrina.

The reasons for this are simple; Republican anger reaps rewards, however irrational (Islamofascism, illegal immigrants, you name it), but when Democrats have little fits of pique (e. g. General Betray-Us) it ends up getting condemned by congress. Like lab rats, most Democrats have learned that anger is not an effective strategy, and no one has learned this lesson better than Ms. “vast right wing conspiracy” herself.

So why, after more than half a century, has the nation turned its lonely eyes to New York State for presidential candidates? Why are we looking for blustering, out of control men and competent and careful women? Perhaps because Hillary and Rudy each represent one half of a deep psychological archetype that Americans are trying desperately to find in their leaders, a combination of competence and anger, and there is no better place to search for both than in New York.

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