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.