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2001: A Race Odyssey

New Yorkers went to the polls on the morning of September 11, but what began as a primary vote ended up a test of character that made winners of some and left others in the rubble.

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At the end of the year, and only at the end of the year, I often wish I were a film critic, because assembling those year-end lists looks like an act of cathartic and uncomplicated fun. I could rail against the abominable Shrek and its coarse social Darwinism. I could denounce the Farrelly brothers and praise the Coen brothers. I could ruminate on Gene Hackman, since he seems to be in two out of every three movies released these days.

But I'm stuck with politics. Political year-end lists have the disadvantage of being not about things (movies, CDs) but about people, and people, being of more inscrutable manufacture, are harder to judge. The official media line, in our age of instant verdicts, is that the events of this year rendered the palette of judgment a stark black and white -- leaders either rose to the occasion or didn't. But September 11 did not, despite the cliché, change everything; the petty and the pedestrian weren't easily dislodged, even by great calamity.

I'm thinking here chiefly of Rudy Giuliani. Certainly, he is a winner this year. In the mountains of panegyrics to the man that I've read since September 11, no detail has persuaded me that the tragedy brought out a decency in him as profoundly as a story relayed in this magazine by my colleague Jennifer Senior. In a quiet moment at the Lexington Avenue Armory just after the attack, the mayor sat down with a mother and father whose son's body was among the first removed from the wreckage. Giuliani, without cameras around or the usual throng of sycophants, threw himself down on a sofa and said softly, "Tell me about your son." There's a kind of beauty in that moment that we could almost call artistic -- the way it presents a reality (a vulnerable, alone Giuliani) at odds with received wisdom and pulls unexpected emotions out of you. If he did that for a hundred families or a dozen or even four, those were his finest moments of heroism.

Then, being Rudy, he pushed it, trying to finagle his way onto the ballot, and then to delay the election. There were criticisms, warnings that he was starting to look, well, petty and pedestrian; he cooled it; and then everybody forgot about it instantly, and he was back to being Churchill.

Crime spiked up, but the papers referred to it as a post-Rudy phenomenon, even though the spike obviously has to do with post-September 11 redeployment. He said, apropos the famous $20 billion, that New York didn't need the money now, eliciting scarcely a breath of criticism. By November -- when that poor fellow who was working at the WTC site called in to Rudy's radio show expressing the evidently heretical hope that the site might be closed on Christmas so he and his co-workers could be with their families, and the mayor was able to dress the guy down over the airwaves and have it taken as yet one more sign of his uncompromising valor -- it was clear that there was no combating the established narrative. He'll leave the office as he spent his time in it -- appropriately lauded for his accomplishments but never held to account for his shortcomings by a media-business elite that was determined to record his term as a flawless age (no, e-mailers, I would not "rather go back to the dark days of" blah blah blah).

In one way, George Pataki comes out of this a bigger winner than Giuliani -- that is, since Pataki is running again, his increased popularity after September 11 can bring him a tangible political upside. He's harder to beat now, even in spite of that insane $54 billion pork-barrel mess he submitted to Washington. Still, he's inoffensive, and so ideologically elastic that voters can see in him whatever they want to see.

But what on earth is he doing toasting Marxist Buchananite Lenora Fulani? On December 3, the Independence Party, Fulani's current vehicle, threw a bash at which Pataki appeared in a videotaped message extending his "thanks and congratulations" to the party "for the spectacular role" it played in the mayoral election and even raising a champagne glass. Ciphers of the world, unite!

Mike Bloomberg is a winner, obviously. Or is it so obvious? Here, in a nutshell, are the various rumblings. He hasn't named enough people. Republicans are mad because there are too many Democrats (Dinkins Democrats at that). And that Bermuda thing -- is there going to be some four-alarm fire two years from now, and Bloomberg will turn up in Gstaad? Is he really sure he wants this job? But I'm warming to the idea of the Bloomberg era myself. Maybe after Rudy, we need some ambivalence. While I'm on the subject, a tip of the hat to winners David Garth, Ester Fuchs, Mitchell Moss, Maureen Connelly, and Jonathan Capehart, who worked on his campaign. For six months, every politico in town was laughing at them. They've laughed their way to City Hall.

Aren't there any Democratic winners? A few. Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, for starters. Chuck is unstoppable -- he seems to do so much and be so many places that one begins to suspect his days are longer than 24 hours. Hillary is certainly in far better shape than she was at year's beginning (gifts, pardons) and is turning out to be exactly what she told voters she'd be, a diligent and serious-minded legislator who does a lot of things quietly and is not thinking about the presidency. To the extent the $20 billion hasn't come through, it isn't their fault.

Finally, Denny Farrell is a winner -- the first black chairman of the state Democratic Party. I can hear the sardonic Farrell even now saying, You call that a win? Well, Denny, that's up to you, I guess.

Now, the losers. Clearly, we have to put Mark Green on that list. He made one major mistake. Well, two. Okay, three. He ran as though he were ahead; just ask Chuck and Hillary -- you should always run as if you're twenty points behind. His lack of humility made many Democratic power brokers unenthusiastic about him. And he had a terrible ad campaign (did any regular voter even know he had the backing of the cops' and firefighters' unions?). But he lost also because of reasons beyond his control. Seventy million of 'em.

Plus three more: Fernando Ferrer, Roberto Ramirez, and Al Sharpton are all losers. This much I'll say in their defense: There is no question that once a Ferrer victory seemed possible, the white power structure, for want of a better term, circled the wagons to keep him away from City Hall in a way that was mostly ideological but also had a racial element. Let's face it, when the Post endorses Green, as it did in the run-off, it does so only for the purposes of barring the door. But this does not mean the subsequent attacks on Sharpton were racial attacks. They were Sharpton attacks. Nobody lit into Ferrer for having the support of Carl McCall or Virginia Fields, after all, or any of his other black supporters.

They ran; they lost. Instead of getting over it, as normal grown-ups do, and acknowledging that maybe they were too close to Sharpton, they pouted and took their party down with them, happy to see Bloomberg win. (I hope the papers track the fortunes of Ramirez's law firm in the Bloomberg era.) And what lesson seems to have been learned from this? To loser Charlie Rangel, apparently, the lesson is -- it worked, so do it again! Rangel has stood down somewhat from his recent assertion that if McCall lost to Andrew Cuomo in the upcoming Democratic gubernatorial primary, he would support Pataki. But what an astonishing, and racially loaded, statement: A lifelong Democrat who hankers to be the Democratic chair of the House Ways and Means committee has said that he will support only his Democrat -- not the other Democrat, who happens to be white, but who also happens to have spent his public career creating and improving housing for blacks and Latinos!

I can see why Farrell might not consider himself a winner. Happy holidays.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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