In fact, wouldn’t we relish the native immunity of Giuliani’s two New York opponents to his compulsive I-survived-9/11 shtick: When a fellow New Yorker is running for president on the basis of the fact that he didn’t crumple after the attacks—hey, neither did the rest of us—and by pandering to outlanders’ fears of future attacks, we’re not buying.
It goes without saying that any presidential election is a giant media circus. But news media are us: What happens to the political meta-narrative-feedback loop if all the candidates govern or represent and/or live here, in the headquarters city of the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker, the Associated Press, CBS, ABC, NBC, MSNBC, and Fox News? It could be our equivalent of the new cern particle accelerator in Switzerland’s becoming fully operational, which will also take place next year. In neither case, probably, will the universe be destroyed as a result. But the unprecedented supercollisions and energy release are thrilling to contemplate.
The fact that the nation may well elect a New Yorker president seems like an astounding reversal of fortune. Yet a look at history suggests that Americans’ regard for New York City may run in cycles.
From the twenties to the mid-sixties, from Fitzgerald and the Algonquin Round Table through our last World’s Fair, New York was the cosmopolitan cat’s meow—the setting for the great screwball film comedies, the city of theater and publishing and advertising when all three were at their cultural zeniths, the wellspring of America’s global primacy in art, the place where television was established as the center of a new hegemonic media monoculture. In every presidential election from 1928 to 1948, a New Yorker was a major-party nominee, and one of them, the greatest president of the century, won four times. (And speaking of subway series, that’s also the era in which thirteen out of the fourteen happened, including seven of the ten World Series played between 1947 and 1956.)
But then came the city’s spectacular crack-up, in the sixties—Kitty Genovese’s horrific public murder, followed by a tripling and quadrupling of crime rates in just a few years, plus four crippling and contentious municipal strikes (transit, sanitation, and the teachers, twice) between 1966 and 1968. To the other 200 million Americans, the New York City brand became profoundly, horribly sullied. The moment Mayor Lindsay gamely insisted that ours was still “a fun city,” Fun City became a purely ironic catchphrase, since we and the rest of the country knew that New York had suddenly become the international icon of urban danger and entropy, the setting for Midnight Cowboy and Mean Streets instead of I Love Lucy or On the Town. In 1972, Johnny Carson moved the Tonight Show to L.A., and by 1975 the City of New York was within an inch of bankruptcy. The famous Daily News headline might as well have been AMERICA TO CITY: DROP DEAD.
But it’s in the nature of cycles to find a bottom and then creep back up. Movies and TV started softening up the provincials to rediscover New York; Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), the Letterman show (1982), Seinfeld (1990), and Friends (1994) amounted, in the aggregate, to a long-term rebranding campaign to make our countrymen fond of us again. And the destruction of the World Trade towers, the astounding TV event of our age, was the capper. Not only are we smart, fun, and funny, but also fearless—2,752 of us died for your sins, America.
Beyond the upbeat, upscale showbiz iconography, however, and before the collective victimization and heroism of 9/11, we had pulled out of our municipal death spiral. Starting in the nineties, the crime rate dropped almost as fast as it had risen in the sixties and early seventies, and homicides are now as rare as they were back in the good old days before everything went kerflooey. A time traveler from the era of Sleeper would find the conditions of today’s subways—free of graffiti, air-conditioned—and of certain neighborhoods (Harlem, Times Square, the Lower East Side, Fort Greene) literally fantastic. Some of us loved a lot about messed-up, noir New York as well, but the trade-offs we’ve made—most notably, those five daily homicides that no longer occur—are worth it.
What was once the prime example of an ungovernably out-of-control metropolis has, during the past 30 years, become exactly the opposite, a large-scale case study in can-do civic common sense. We’re still liberal, not in precious Santa Monica/Berkeley ways, but in the more old-fashioned sense of a freethinking, serious-minded inclination to try whatever works, whether it requires less government or more. In the last presidential election, we voted almost unanimously against the wild-eyed ideologue candidate, and in four mayoral elections in a row we’ve chosen the (at least nominally) Republican candidate. In other words, we’re now a beacon of reasonableness, competence, and trans-ideological pragmatism.