The Mayor’s Balls


It’s 1977. The mayor of New York is Abe Beame, a laconic little guy presiding over a huge fiscal crisis. But at least the skyline is graced by the world’s tallest buildings. No one can imagine two hijacked planes slamming into the twin towers and reducing them to billowing rubble, but one September morning the unthinkable occurs. It’s a true emergency on top of a chronic one, and the question on everyone’s lips is, What is to be done?

Let’s say the awful events of last month had taken place during those years, and let’s say the law required Beame to leave office at the end of his term. What if he had requested a special dispensation so he could serve an additional three months? Imagine the case he might have made: a dire need to coordinate relief efforts and the replacement of 100,000 lost jobs, not to mention the enormous task of rebuilding a financial hub that might otherwise relocate, plunging the city into a lasting depression. What would the reaction of legislators, commentators, and good-government groups have been?

Maybe the same as it was when Rudy Giuliani made that proposal—but maybe not. If Beame had been mayor when the twin towers went down, most people would have argued about whether he was up to the task of leading the recovery. But the talk about disrupting the democratic process would have been more muted, and the question would have been decided after a sober (if politically charged) debate. Of course, there can be no sober debate where Giuliani is concerned.

The mayor’s authoritarian instincts are well known, and as with all strongmen, no one can trust him to get out of the way. The mischief he could perform during those fateful three months would rebound against his successor, not to mention the city. And then there’s the impact on communities of color. Giuliani has essentially disenfranchised them by excluding them from city government, an act so disgraceful that it qualifies as bigotry. Though no mainstream commentator has called Giuliani a bigot, that’s precisely what many of the city’s black and Latino residents would say—quite correctly. He leaves the city more divided along racial lines than at any time in its modern history. Even more than his leadership during the recent emergency, that’s what Giuliani will be remembered for.

This record is why the mayor had so little credibility when he announced his willingness to stick around. Giuliani created the conditions that made his plan unworkable. He never explained in any detail why his request was rational. His basic thrust was to imply that no one else could do the job, a variation of “après moi le déluge” that could only resonate with people’s well-founded suspicions. He tried to get his way by blackmail, and his critics reacted accordingly. They resisted the hijacking of their city. But were they right?

My gut says the potential gain from three more months of Rudy would not outweigh the pain. But I can’t make a clear judgment, because I haven’t been given all the facts. None of the candidates has helped in this respect. Mark Green never laid out the case for keeping Giuliani around, and Freddy Ferrer framed his refusal to consider the idea as a defense of “the rule of law.” Never mind that the state constitution gives the legislature “the power and immediate duty” to amend the rules in order to assure the continuance of effective government “in periods of emergency caused by enemy attack.” There was no issue here of violating the law, only the question of whether this departure from tradition was warranted—and we never got to debate that point.

Instead, the issue was resisting Rudy. Ferrer was able to present himself as the candidate with cojones, while Green found himself outflanked on the macho front. He had “folded,” to use Ed Koch’s snickering term, or “melted,” as one teachers’ union delegate put it, explaining why his colleagues voted to endorse Ferrer. In the Observer‘s front-page cartoon, Mark cowered while Freddy roared at Rudy. Green’s failure to buttress his reasoning only made him look weaker. He seemed guilty of what graffiti writers call “jocking”—showing too much respect for a superior male—while Freddy looked like he was wearing the strap.

The media aided this obfuscating image game by failing to discuss the issue on its merits. Except for a few op-ed pieces, there was no deliberate pro and con. The Times simply declared Rudy’s proposal a “very bad idea.” A statement by good-government groups urging the legislature not to comply with Giuliani’s request focused on the threat to “basic notions of democracy and home rule.” It never broached the question of necessity. That left the issue to be decided in the partisan clamor of politics, and here the black and Latino legislative caucuses played a major role in making the plan unfeasible. It’s understandable why they behaved as they did, but their real problem was with Giuliani. They might have had more confidence in a mayor they could trust—and the candidates might have reacted in a way that didn’t turn a practical question into a test of courage.

It’s a true tribute to Rudy that we now choose our mayors by weighing their balls. Even a crucial question like racial empowerment becomes conflated with masculinity: We’re voting for a people’s macho to replace the racist one. The cojones factor makes it less likely that we’ll soon see a woman in City Hall. And it makes the best qualities of a candidate like Green—his intellectualism and calculation—seem more prissy than principled. The underlying question isn’t who can do better than Rudy, but who is as much of a man as he.

This is the world the sadistic tropes of pop culture celebrate—and that sexual backlash seems forward-looking now. After the twin towers attack, it feels necessary to be led by men who define themselves by standing up to other men. The measure of competence is walking tall.

This is not the quality our best mayors have had. Fiorello La Guardia didn’t exactly walk tall. His greatest trait wasn’t his ability to thump his chest but his skill at organizing a hungry horde into an army whose achievements are still with us in the form of great public works. John Lindsay was a great mayor because he knew how to form unique alliances that could challenge power relations (up to a point). As for David Dinkins, his best quality was his tenacious humanism. He got caught between two tough guys: the haimishly demagogic Koch and the shamelessly vicious Giuliani. But Dinkins, who dared to speak out against bigots—even black ones—was the real red meat in that sandwich.

It’s a media litany that the recession to come will recall the Beame era. It will take a remarkable politician to reconcile legitimate demands of empowerment with this new environment of constraint. But it looks like we’ll choose the candidate who is best able to stand up to The Man. The fact that Ferrer got big mo from his refusal to make a deal is more ominous than impressive. As the reign of Rudy attests, you pay for what you get.

Research: Adrian Leung