The rest of America seems to get this. Our junior senator is the most conservative of the Democratic candidates, our former mayor the most liberal of the Republicans. Sure, they and Bloomberg are opportunists (they’re New Yorkers!). Yes, Bloomberg would be purchasing the presidency (again, so New York—and unlike TR and FDR, he made his own fortune). But all three embody a certain reassuring philosophical mongrelism, and a tilt toward the center. As a Goldwater Republican undergraduate, Clinton fancied herself “a mind conservative and a heart liberal.” Two decades ago, as he was first running for office, the former Bobby Kennedy Democrat Giuliani admitted that apart from “law-enforcement matters … I’m more moderate or liberal, depending on which position will solve the problem.’’ And Bloomberg, having created a visionary business from scratch, is candidly instrumental and whateverish about party affiliation. Unlike Reagan or Bill Clinton, none of them seems especially likable, somebody you really want to have a beer with … but so what? Maybe Americans are ready to abandon the delusion that presidential candidates are running for good-buddy-in-chief.
And speaking of circling forward from and back toward the sixties, this possible presidential contest among New Yorkers, as a famous Yankee once said, is like déjà vu all over again. In 1964, a scandalous divorce and remarriage damaged the presidential campaign of a liberal New York Republican who had been the front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination. The same year, a family member and close adviser of the previous Democratic president opportunistically moved to New York to run for Senate, and a few years later ran for president. At the same time, a rich Republican Upper East Sider was accused of “trying to buy his way into City Hall,” then got reelected, switched parties, and declared for president. Nelson Rockefeller, Bobby Kennedy, and John Lindsay never ran against each other nor, of course, made it to the White House. Yet while pundits always say that the last New Yorker to become president was FDR, I beg to differ. The candidate who beat Rockefeller for the nomination and finally won the presidency in 1968 had spent the previous five years working as a lawyer on Wall Street and living with his family at 62nd and Fifth; he then spent his twenty years of retirement in a New York suburb closer than Chappaqua to Central Park. Richard Nixon was as much a New Yorker as Hillary Clinton.
Of course, New York City didn’t vote for Nixon for president, just as most of us aren’t about to vote this time for our boy Giuliani. Home-team rooting only goes so far. Personally, I’m for Obama, not least because his election would hasten the end of a national politics that so often amounts to endless, stupid, fantasy reenactments of the battles of the late sixties. But if Iowans and New Hampshirites and South Carolinians dash that happy, redemptive dream, well, then I’m totally psyched—“We’re hangin’ a sign / Says VISITORS FORBIDDEN / And we ain’t kiddin’!”—for the mother of all New York gang fights.