Wednesday, June 2, 2010

David Garth: New York's Boss

Anyone paying attention to presidential politics for the last twenty years has born witness to the rise of the political consultant as celebrity. These are the campaign strategists, the brains of the organization, the men behind the curtains, the power behind the thrones who have helped elect -- some may use the term "make" -- presidents. No longer do presidents win elections themselves -- they are "made" by people of mystical genius and scary powers to influence an entire nation.

Lee Atwater made George Bush Sr in 1988, James Carville and Dick Morris made Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, Karl Rove made George Bush Jr in 2000 and 2004, and David Axelrod made Barack Obama in 2008.

Some young budding politicos no longer dream of becoming president -- they dream of "making" them.

In NYC, mayors used to be "made" by the clubhouse. Political bosses like the infamous William Tweed in the 19th century and Carmine De Sapio in the 20th ran Tammany Hall and hand-selected candidates for mayor, oversaw their campaigns, and the results of the elections were basically a fait accompli. Since the fall of Tammany in 1961, the rise of party primaries, and the all-consuming power of television advertising, no longer do political bosses run the city from behind the scenes. Instead, the campaign consultant dominates.

Surprisingly, since 1965, one man has been responsible for helping to elect four of our city's last six mayors. Political strategist David Garth worked on the campaigns of Mayors John Lindsay (1966-1973), Ed Koch (1978-1989), Rudy Giuliani (1994-2001), and Mike Bloomberg (2001-2013). He has played a hand in determining who has run this town for 40 of the last 48 years.

Wow. Talking about reach. Eat your heart out Karl Rove (and company).

And not only that but Garth is responsible for not only making four of our last six mayors, he also helped to un-make the two others he didn't work for. Woe unto those mayors who ran against a Garth client: Mayor Abe Beam lost to Ed Koch in 1977 and Mayor Dinkins to Rudy Giuliani in 1993.

Put simply: the guy was good.

Why? Because he understood television and how to make his clients connect with voters and their concerns. He was a master of the sound-bite. He would create ads that summed up the problems the city's electorate faced and his potential mayor would offer a simple solution:

For example, in 1977, he had Ed Koch say in an ad: "Abe Beame says he wants four more years to finish the job. Finish the job? Hasn't he done enough?" In 1993, the Giuliani campaign slogan was "One City, One Standard."

Garth was something of a political chameleon for his entire career. He worked for both Republicans and Democrats and, for a man who dedicated his life to politics, his own political beliefs remained elusive. Unlike today's hot-shot political consultants who appear on TV and blab their mouths off, Garth shunned publicity, operated stealthily, and worked quietly to alter the course of the city's fate. And he did it for almost half a century.

Today David Garth is 80 years old and very ill. Although the mayors he worked for are known to every New Yorker, Garth is a mystery man to 99.9% of them. But his clients want that to change that: recently Giuliani, Bloomberg and Koch got together to start a fundraising drive to create a special professorship, a "chair" as it is known, at CUNY named after the man who made their careers (David Dinkins was noticeably absent for this event; Lindsay and Beame have been dead for years). I

If their plan works out, Garth will be remembered by our city's educational system for years to come. (Although why billionaire Bloomberg can't fund this chair himself is just strange.)

So know you know more about the man who made or unmade our city's last six mayors. If our city has had a political boss for the last forty-plus years, then it was him. You may hate or love the men he elected mayor but, whatever your feelings, you can't deny that David Garth made NYC what it is today.

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