Only two offices in American political life have a double function, one official and the other ceremonial, offering, and demanding, a second role that everyone knows about, but no one quite articulates. The Presidency is one: it’s both political and monarchical. He (or, soon, she) gets the top job in politics, and is also the embodiment of the state. Presidents who do both jobs passably well—Reagan and Kennedy, and Obama, too—get many a break from their constituents, and from the history books. We want a guy who looks the part. Those who never did—Nixon, Carter—get kicked around, perhaps unduly.
As we approach the election of a new one, it’s apparent that the mayoralty of New York is perhaps the only other public job in the country quite like that. The New York Mayor’s role, though, is both political and theatrical. He (or, eventually, she) is trying to make the No. 6 train run on time, but is also expected to have some personal flair, some style—to show the world’s first city as it sees itself. The Mayor of New York can hold the stage as the central character in a hit Broadway musical: “Fiorello!” (Get the original-cast album on iTunes; it’s terrific. ) A LaGuardia predecessor, the elegant, corrupt Jimmy Walker, got a Broadway show of his own, too (it was called “ Jimmy”), not to mention a pretty good Bob Hope movie, “Beau James.”
Going back even further in the annals of municipal glamour, there’s John Purroy Mitchel, known to generations of joggers as the Mayor with the elaborate gilt monument at the stairway leading to the reservoir in Central Park. The “Boy Mayor of New York”—there’s a nice nickname—he was only thirty-four when he got elected. The monument explains that he enlisted in the Air Service during the First World War, giving the slightly misleading impression that he was killed in combat, Over There. In truth, he fell out of his plane during training, in Louisiana, possibly because he forgot to fasten his seatbelt.
That is not, one feels strongly, a mistake that Michael Bloomberg, the current mayor, would have made, or would let anyone else make. One of the interesting things about Bloomberg is that he did indeed find a way to play the part of Mayor, though in a newish way: anti-charismatic, uninspiring as a rhetorician, much less as an orator, he came to embody a certain sour, plainspoken, after-the-fall candor. He was the leader of the Efficient City, as much as Fiorello was the man of the Hopeful One. Anyone who spent a few minutes with him, much less twelve years under him, was bound to recognize his intelligence, his realism, his self-certainty. He radiated competence as Lindsay did charisma and, mirabile dictu, the city in his time was competently run, which, given the odds, had the look of a miracle. Subway lines spoke up and said where they were going, and when—this, after decades of mumbled public-address announcements; the parks were cleaner, the boroughs more habitable; crime continued its blessed drop. After the shakiest low point in the city’s history, he rallied its citizens by not being the rallying kind.
Nobody before thought you could play competence in quite this way, perhaps because it had been so long since competence had shown up onstage. Mayor Koch, as few remember, tried playing competence at first—that was his slogan, in fact: “After eight years of charisma, and four years of the clubhouse”—referring to the Lilliputian then-incumbent, Abe Beame—“why not try competence?” But given the circumstances of New York in the seventies—there was a moment, Koch would recall in later years, when there was a realistic fear that bubonic plague had come to town—he ended up playing the part of cheerer-upper, and did it well enough to be remembered positively today, despite the scandals of his final term.
How much of the good of the past decade is to Bloomberg’s credit, if any, is imponderable. One more rule of New York life is that the current mayor always gets the credit for what the previous Mayor did. Opinion has hardened around the notion that it was Mayor Giuliani who presided, for good or ill, over the cleanup and Mickey Mouse-ear-adorning of Times Square—but it was, as I wrote a few years ago, really Mayor Koch who put that process in motion and deserves most of the credit, or blame. Giuliani was just there to cut the ribbon. In the same way, there is a fossilized view that Mayor Dinkins presided over chaos and decline, which Giuliani remedied—but it was, in truth, Dinkins who first put in place the changes in policing that would lead to the great miracle of the crime drop. Giuliani, in turn, probably feels, with some justice, that Bloomberg is reaping credit for civilizing trends that began when he was running the place, and so on unto eternity, or Westchester County, whichever comes first. (Bloomberg’s green, pastoralizing policies, from bike lanes to solar credits, which no one talks about nearly as much as his moralizing ones, may be his most lasting legacy, for which the next guy will get the credit.)
Does Bloomberg’s reign of competence and censoriousness mark the end of the show-biz Mayor and the beginning of a more collegial New York—a sort of “Chorus Line” approach to government, where there isn’t just one star? “New York is a self-organizing place,” the great city watcher Jane Jacobs always insisted, and surely one of the great, insufficiently told stories of our time involved the way that New Yorkers themselves, after the tragedy and anxiety of 2001—made worse, as people no longer entirely recall, by the anthrax attacks and then the crash of a flight to the Dominican Republic—healed their own city, simply by realizing that the price of living with fear was too great.
What’s encouraging or strange, but at least notable and possibly even unique to New York, is that Mayor-to-be (barring a historic upset) Bill de Blasio seems obviously and touchingly to have modeled his candidacy on Laguardia’s. LaGuardia’s granddaughter, Katherine, is introduced on de Blasio’s Web site, endorsing him as a potential Mayor in the Fiorello mold—touching because, only in New York, kids, as Cindy Adams would say, would anyone even vaguely expect people to know who the Mayor was in the nineteen-thirties, much less think that this was a model worth following. (Quick, who was Philadelphia’s mayor in the nineteen-thirties and forties? Well, they included Samuel Davis Wilson and Robert Eneas Lamberton, both of whom, weirdly, died in office, presumably of boredom. It’s a safe bet that no one there is running for mayor on a platform of renewed Lambertonianism.) This isn’t so much because anyone really remembers LaGuardia’s policies, but because his tiny stature casts a long shadow. These days, reading the funnies and speaking Yiddish won’t help a Mayor much, as it did the Little Flower—it may be more useful to have your own YouTube channel and speak Tagalog—but at least the promise of a Mayor for all the people, which is what the LaGuardia legacy evokes, is a nice role to keep in the repertory.
And, if everything else goes wrong, there is probably some hidden accomplishment of Mayor Bloomberg’s that de Blasio can claim as his own. The long-form TV series, more than the Broadway show, is the dramatic vehicle of our era, so the new mayor should get a few months to figure out the arc of his own story. Sometimes it just takes time.