A couple of Fridays ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio took a ride on a helicopter and no one knows why. There are 60,000 people living in the city’s homeless shelters, cops keep killing New Yorkers of color, and gentrification chases the poor to the fringes of the city, but reporters are very irked that this helicopter ride happened.
Why? Well, the mayor took off from a field in Prospect Park, people tweeted about it, and it wasn’t on his public schedule. Was he taking the chopper to go eat at Bar Toto? Get a manicure? Hit the Park Slope Y elliptical? Plot the kidnapping of Andrew Cuomo? De Blasio won’t tell us — so he must be hiding something.
The faux outrage will not abate. Yesterday, on the front page of the Daily News, members of the public were summoned for the holy task of trying to find out why de Blasio took his helicopter. (“Where Was Blaz? Help News Uncover Dark Secret of Mayor’s Chopper Ride.”) De Blasio is pictured in sunglasses and a porkpie hat, an image taken from the time he had to sing “Kansas City” after the Mets lost the World Series to the Kansas City Royals. Simpler times.
The helicopter story, breathlessly covered everywhere, represents one of those occasional moments when de Blasio’s frustration with the press is justified. His predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, flew in a helicopter many times and was AWOL on numerous weekends, sequestering himself in a Bermuda compound. Flying above the city was not incongruous with Bloomberg’s image; he was a billionaire, after all, and never pretended to speak the language of the working class.
So a pox on de Blasio for again not understanding the “optics” of the situation, which is reporter/politico-speak for how something looks, not whether it should really matter. Tuck the neverending Park Slope gym story in the same rubric. You may have heard that de Blasio likes to work out in his old neighborhood at the Park Slope Y instead of sticking a treadmill in Gracie Mansion or frequenting a nearby gym on the Upper East Side. You likely know this because local TV stations, newspapers, and websites love writing about it. It’s perfect fodder for apoplectic man-on-the-street interviews.
Why does this dumb mayor have to travel twelve miles in his police detail just to go to the gym? Answer: he likes it. But, but…how can he run the city if he’s at the gym at nine or ten in the morning, when most New Yorkers (journalists included!) are hard at work? Answer: It’s the 21st century, you don’t have to stay glued to a rotary phone. The gym and helicopter stories, marinated in the self-righteous indignation usually reserved for the haughty mayor himself, are media obsessions that shouldn’t be. Everybody needs to move on.
Of course, the reporter might counter, it’s about transparency. De Blasio said he would have the most transparent administration in history and that is probably not the case. The City Hall press corps has rightfully excoriated de Blasio for refusing to release the disciplinary records of police officers and shielding certain interactions with his “agents of the city” from Freedom of Information Law requests. So not telling us about his chopper ride is yet another example of hypocrisy — except it’s all but irrelevant to the functioning of the city or the lives of New Yorkers.
The lesson de Blasio should take from this absurdity is that he is failing (again) at a political game he still thinks he’s mastered. To at least distract from the distractions, or try to remove shiny-object stories from the front page of tabloids, de Blasio needs to think seriously about what his administration wants to achieve before his 2017 re-election bid.
In 2014, he dreamed big with universal prekindergarten and got it done. He delivered on the campaign promises of guaranteeing paid sick days and creating municipal identification cards.
Two years later, though, City Hall often seems rudderless: Few grand designs have sprung forth. Major policy announcements are dwindling as de Blasio loses interest in talking to the press or appearing in public. When he has occasionally gone big, like with the nonsensical Brooklyn—Queens streetcar that may or may not adequately sync up with the MTA-controlled subway (or drown in the next Superstorm), he’s missed the mark. It’s almost as if he’s running out of ideas.
The press can be an ally and a vehicle if a mayor wants it to be. Koch, Giuliani, and Bloomberg all learned a lesson that de Blasio, perhaps too high in the sky, refuses to listen to. Then again, with this kind of story captivating the press, you can’t always blame him.