New York State of Mind

Minnelli, Scorsese and De Niro plan New York, New York, a movie about the city some of whose very wealthy residents really like.

Anyone who has been to an Italian or Jewish wedding reception on the East Coast knows from the lyrics sung by the innumerable wedding band followers of Frank Sinatra that with respect to New York, New York: “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.” The song was the only thing that the public liked from the movie New York, New York, which despite starring Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro, was so bad that it drove director Martin Scorsese into a cocaine-fueled depression that required lithium to pull him out. It was probably what convinced him to never again make a movie that wasn’t chock full of gratuitous violence. It was certainly one of the many instances of New Yorkers finding out to their regret that the rest of the country does not share their fervidness for the city that never sleeps.

Nevertheless when Frank Sinatra recorded the title song, it became something of an anthem for many New York residents. Even those who would just as soon be anywhere in New Jersey if they knew how to get a job there feel their hearts swelling with pride each time they realize that having “made it here” they could “make it anywhere.” The song has become one of those devices used to keep in the city ordinary New Yorkers (whose presence is required to fill the needs of the very wealthy for whom the city is a pleasant diversion between times in Bimini and Rome), despite the fact that living almost anywhere else would drastically increase their quality of life.  When I first moved to New York City in the early 1970s, it was a cesspool of crime, drugs and corruption. But I met one of the people who took the message of the song to heart. Every time something unrelated to New York came up, he would immediately note that New York had one bigger and better. I one time mentioned a very poor section of St. Louis. He responded, “We have several bigger and worse ghettos right here.”

Anyone who lives in New York City can tick off all the reasons for its superiority, especially if you live or work in Manhattan. You are within minutes of many of the finest collections of art in the world. You can hear a jazz festival every night. Every major orchestra and chamber group plays here. Broadway plays. (OK, good point. But there was a time when they weren’t all poor revivals.) You can pick up The New York Review of Books at a kiosk less than a block away. You can easily find a speaker of any one of over a hundred languages. You can visit the Statue of Liberty or the Bronx Zoo or the New York Aquarium. This list was only the then current list used to promote Manhattan. Whitman used another in “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun”:

Give me such shows—give me the streets of Manhattan!
Give me Broadway, with the soldiers marching—give me the sound of  the trumpets and drums!

Rogers and Hart had another list. So did many others up to this day.

But they are all the same. I remember once hearing the list of a fellow New York schlub who also worked 80 hours a week (necessary to pay for your temporary use of real estate which the rest of the country would consider cell-sized)—her list of things that made it unthinkable to leave. I asked her when was the last time she did or saw any one of the things on her list, but she couldn’t remember. The point was, you could do or see them if you wanted to. (Incidentally, she now lives in Austin.)

One reason that such effort is put into methods to enhance civic pride and loyalty to the point of xenophobia is that New Yorkers are subject to the domination of the loudest and most obnoxious boors ever to rule over a supposedly democratic and literate people. You need only mention the names Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani to make the hair stand up on the back of a normal person’s neck. But it doesn’t just involve politicians in the city that was ruled by Tammany for over a century. Anyone who is given the least authority, such as sports coaches and owners (Rex Ryan, Bill Parcells, George Steinbrenner), or are told that people like hearing them talk (Howard Stern, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Don Imus) tend to become loud and obnoxious. Entertainers can be tolerated (and sometimes embraced) by the rest of the country. But when it comes to rulers, the rest of the country has far too much self-respect and historical devotion to self-rule to allow themselves to be subjected to the loud buffoons who New Yorkers allow themselves to be subjected to.

Jimmy Breslin once summarized Rudy Giuliani as "a little man in search of a balcony." (AP Photo from Politico.)

Take the case of Rudy Giuliani, for example. Giuliani was always a very angry and loud man. Possibly because he was prematurely bald; possibly because he was bullied at St. Anne’s for his lisp; possibly in imitation of the mob-connected friends of his father. In the first part of his career, as US Attorney, he firmly held his personality disorder in check by conscious force of will. When he ran for mayor the rage slipped out from time to time, but New York was an angry place at the time and didn’t mind it. When he became mayor, a position far higher than he ever imagined he could have risen, he gradually allowed himself to give vent to his rage-induced self-aggrandizement by racial incitement, political vendettas, public belittlings and so forth so that by the end of his term he was as unpopular a politician as ever there was in New York City. But then came 9-11. Someone (I just can’t remember who) said that Rudy didn’t rise to the occasion, the circumstances just descended to his level. Nevertheless, to his credit, he didn’t go around blaming people for the circumstances of the city after the attack, he just answered questions. And because he was able to do what you would think is the bare minimum expected of a public servant, he became an international celebrity. He was even given a knighthood (for a life term and with restrictions; no Giuliani is sitting in the House of Lords). He became a Time Man of the Year. (Time was not about to repeat the mistake it made with Hitler. Nor had it yet decided to make every one of their readers Man of the Year.) All of this was because everyone was so surprised to find Giuliani trying to act calm and reasonable. Like Johnson’s bipedal dog, it was “not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Giuliani decided that these accolades meant that the rest of the country was clamoring for his leadership. As it turned out, he couldn’t win Florida Republicans. Florida! Could there be a place more accommodating to obnoxious New Yorkers?

We now see a man who possibly is going to go down that same path. Donald Trump.

You of course don’t need another piece on how Donald Trump is an empty self-promoter who has neither thought about policy nor is particularly good at expressing anything but the vilest form of right-wing “populism.” That anyone would support a man who has used the tax and bankruptcy codes for his personal aggrandizement, who has a personal ethical system even less demanding than Newt Gingrich’s, and who has spent his entire lifetime regarding his fellow Americans only to discover how, if at all, they can contribute to his personal enrichment, has to be explained by someone versed in social dysfunction or the psychology of low self-esteem. That his enablers think they represent the thinking of intellectuals steeped in Enlightenment thought and with a deep understanding of western history shows how easily lazy, angry people can be deluded.

Insider Donald Trump's personal integrity and self-esteem play a zero sum game. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

But the point here is that Donald Trump is a phenomenon which is the result of the popular media and broken political system of New York. New York is one of the high brow cultural capitals of the world. It is the center of non-academic literary, musical and artistic activities in the country. The voters are more liberal, by any measure, than almost anywhere else in the country. It has a progressive tradition that goes back before the founding of the country and included such important progressives as the Livingstons, the Clintons, Burr, Van Buren, Steward, not to mention the history of progressive journalism centered in New York. A significant part of the rise of Theodore Roosevelt was a result of being the Police Commissioner of New York City. Franklin Roosevelt’s first job was in a law firm in the city. Even among post-WWII Republicans, the more progressive wing came from New York City.

But today, New York City and its environs are capable of producing for its representatives only braggarts and blowhards, who can amuse the rest of the country, but don’t have the slightest chance of being voted for by them or even persuading them of anything. Is it because of the bizarre system of political clubs that the city parties use to nurture and select its political leaders? Is it that the city has become so unmanageable that it can only seek circus animal trainers to govern it? Is it the bizarre and corrupt system of state government (which deprives the people of a say in their own government) that precludes a “nursery” for budding statesmen?

Whatever it is, buffoons like Donald Trump should not be misled: “Making it” in New York now means that he’s out of touch everywhere else. But Trump doesn’t need a warning from me. He’s spent far more time looking out for Number 1 than nearly anyone else you can think of. You can bet that no matter what happens, and no matter how bad it will be for the rest of us, things will turn up all right for Trump. Rats and cockroaches also do well among the ruins.

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