The Magazine

The Classic Triad Strikes Again

Clinton the Forerunner, Bush the Master, Obama the Decadent.

Feb 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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Lincoln or Reagan? TR or Ike? Washington or Wilson? Camelot or Campobello? Offshore oil drilling may be stalled for the duration, but nothing can stop the round-the-clock mining of clichés and the deep-earth probes in search of historical metaphors for President Obama. Journalists are running three shifts in quest for original models, new figures of speech, and fresh paradigms to express the nobility, brilliance, novelty, cool, and cunning of a president who--if I may coin a phrase--is still only in the first hundred hours of his administration.

The effort is straining America's cranial infrastructure. Christopher Hitchens dusted off the word "hepcat" to describe Obama. E.J. Dionne must have awakened in horror one morning last week--had he really reminded readers that Obama is fond of the word "audacity"? And Maureen Dowd--well, to quote anything she published during inauguration week would hardly be the act of a gentleman. Four more years spent shouldering the Obama burden will mark the bodies of our best writers in dreadful ways. Pastor Warren must pray on behalf of their families and their dustjacket photographers.

So in the new spirit of solidarity with the suffering, I offer freely to these heroes a fresh face to fasten on Obama--though not a pretty one: Michael R. Bloomberg. Obama must soon reveal himself as the Bloomberg of presidents--depending uncomfortably but inescapably upon the achievement of his predecessor Bush while avoiding the mistakes of Bush's predecessor Clinton, just as Bloomberg must do with Rudy Giuliani and Ed Koch.

An unlovely and unlovable mayor and our adorable new president: an odd comparison, but one that describes the limits and possibilities of an Obama presidency more precisely than any metaphor that Will or Wieseltier might happen upon. Koch, Giuliani, and Bloomberg form a classic triad of human achievement: the Forerunner, the Master, and the Decadent. Among Greek tragedians, Ed, Rudy, and Mike are played by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Among the Elizabethan dramatic geniuses, Marlowe is Koch, Shakespeare is Giuliani, and Ben Jonson is Bloomberg. In "Music Appreciation" class, we were once taught the three Bs: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Among Italian movie directors: Rossellini, Fellini, Visconti. Among sacred books: Torah, Gospel, Koran.

The three mayors exemplify this pattern beautifully. Ed, the forerunner of reform: His methods are primitive, his manner is experimental, his effect futile. Rudy: the outwardly supreme but inwardly tortured master craftsman who actually seized control of the city and transformed it for its citizens. Mike: the decadent smoothie, a middle-of-the-road Democrat who rode into an office transformed by the efforts of the unpopular Rudy. Mike ignores Rudy, but he remains--so far--successful and adequately popular by keeping the situation for New Yorkers only a little worse--so far--than Rudy left it.

Koch, for all his failures, made Giuliani possible. Taking control of the city after a near-financial collapse, Koch discerned in the mists the path that his successor actually walked. Despite Koch's realism and tough-mindedness, and his willingness to burn bridges with his former left-wing supporters, he proved to his contemporaries that the city was ungovernable. When, after three terms, the voters replaced him with David Dinkins, a true left purist, it hardly made a difference in the lives of those of us who lived there.

From the ashes emerged the master. Giuliani accomplished all that Koch promised, and never asking, "How'm I doing?" Giuliani set about making the streets and homes of the city safe for those who lived there--most particularly for the poor. His public order policies--snarlingly publicized--made life for ordinary New Yorkers almost unimaginably better. In every year since he took office, at least a thousand citizens have been spared a violent death, an equal number have been saved from becoming murderers, and for every murder prevented, perhaps fifty or a hundred relatives and friends are saved from grief, fear, and bitterness. Rudy's achievement allowed New Yorkers to take as normal a level of civility in urban life.

In the wake of 9/11, Mike Bloomberg took over. Observe him, Mr. President. He moved first to restore the reputation and likability of the mayor's office by sitting down and talking to the community leaders whom Giuliani scorned for being unrepresentative. He also noisily ordered uncourageous "crackdowns" on harmless practices with no discernible victims and no discernible advocates: smoking in restaurant bars and consuming trans fats. He refused to reduce the size of the city's immense workforce, proclaiming that living and doing business in the city should be a luxury for the discerning. Bloomberg's single Giulianiesque accomplishment--replacing the old school board with a new blue-ribbon entity--has made scant difference to the children forced to remain in the city's public education system.

All Mike's noise made for popularity with the New York Times-reading classes. But one thing would never be permitted him. Bloomberg made sure not to weaken the public-safety regime in such a way that it would send the murder rate up. The result is that, gradually, Bloomberg has donned Giuliani's reputation for making New York safe--but without summoning up charges of racism and police brutality. Having done the tough and unpopular work that made the Bloomberg regime possible, Rudy has been discarded.

President Obama is in much the same lucky but precarious position--and has a similar relationship to his two predecessors. Obama's first avatar, Bill Clinton, was as noisy as Koch but was an indolent president--a forerunner. Like Koch, he was a big personality with a small list of accomplishments, and his term ended in recession, a futile war, and unavenged attacks against American forces that prepared the way for 9/11.

To Clinton's Koch, Bush played Giuliani. Bush's successes took too long to achieve by the political clock, but the ultimate result was safety at home since 9/11, the defeat of two of our most potent enemies on the battlefield of Iraq (Saddam and al Qaeda both), and an improvement in the lives of non-Saddamist, non-Islamist Iraqis that far exceeded Giuliani's improvement in New York City. Had Bush been quicker to find a strategy for victory (in the teeth of ferocious opposition, much of it opportunistic, much of it demanding an impossible perfection, all of it unwise), he might have turned his attention to reforming the financial system in his second term. That's just what he did, of course, but his efforts were easily outmaneuvered.

Like Bloomberg succeeding Giuliani, Obama inherits a far better hand than Bush had done. The worst is over. The disasters happened in the last September of the last year of both Giuliani's and Bush's terms. Like Bloomberg, Obama will find it easy to adopt a style of governing that is less challenging to the opinion-making classes than his predecessors.

But there is one terrifying exception to Obama's easy pathway to esteem. Obama can do whatever he wants as long as domestic security remains merely Bush-perfect. Bloomberg knows he may raise taxes, drive jobs out of town, indulge his health fads, but only so long as the murder toll never rises above, say, 699. Just as New Yorkers now read about a Central Park mugging on the front page, Americans have come to believe that our freedom from more terrorist attacks is normal. Pity Bloomberg and Obama for a moment--for they know there is nothing normal or easy about the security achievements of the despised masters they have succeeded.

Obama and Bloomberg sit on the horns of a dilemma. In every way but this, they needn't actually outdo the masters they have succeeded as long as they govern with style (like Brahms in his music and Visconti in his films). Obama beat Bush with taxes, interrogation, and Guantánamo. He has hired not ideologues but cynical operators to manage the crucial economic and military tasks of his administration. Geithner and Holder, each of them with a proven record of moral pliancy, can be relied on to do what is necessary, even if it means keeping taxes low, interrogations harsh, and some equivalent to Guantánamo in business. Behind the scenes, such men will ensure the Obama administration's clock will still run on "Giuliani time," while in press conferences Obama can act as Bloomberg.

In his ungracious inaugural address, Obama spent a lot of energy outlining his moral superiority to the defeated man to whom he owes so much. With an admiring audience before them, decadent smoothies like Bloomberg and Obama really can get away with murder. Fortunately for us, Bloomberg and Obama also know that they can't permit the actual murder of large numbers of their audience. Or so I hope.

Sam Schulman, a writer in Virginia, is publishing director of the American.