Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Where is Hugh Carey when we need him?

Politicians in general, and New York politicians in particular, are not a well-respected bunch. Even in the best of times they are viewed with disdain; during the worst of times they are downright hated. But it is a truism of American politics that most politicians and their legacies are viewed more favorably long after they've left office.

Take, for example, President Gerald Ford. His pardon of Richard Nixon in 1974 was met with universal condemnation and lead to his defeat in 1976. Yet more than thirty years later most Americans agree that it was the right thing to do -- he removed Watergate from the national agenda and put the business of governing the country first. Probably the most famous example post-presidential rehabilitation is Harry Truman. When he left the presidency in 1953, he had the lowest approval ratings ever recorded. He was despised. And yet today he is widely regarded as one of our greatest presidents: the Marshall Plan, the Berlin airlift, the doctrine of containment, the desegregation of the military, the ending of the rail strike -- he put America and the world back on track after the Depression and World War II and set for the stage for the eventual peaceful end of the Cold War. (No wonder Republican George W. Bush always compares himself to Democrat Harry Truman.)

Closer to home, and more recent in history, is the case of Hugh Carey. A two-term Governor from 1975-1983, he lead New York through the fiscal crises of the 1970s and saved the city and state from bankruptcy. It was a brutal time in the city's history. During the 1960s and early 70s, Mayor John Lindsay, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and Presidents Johnson and Nixon had driven the city, state and country into a godawful fiscal mess -- their out of control budgets and loose fiscal policies had exploded government debt and caused awful inflation, and it was left to the likes of Carey, Ford, and Mayor Abe Beam to clean up the mess.

But it was Carey, most of all, who did it: a master at the art of politics and compromise, he managed to get the federal government to bail out the city by playing the business community against the labor unions and getting them to make concessions that made the bailout possible.

There is a new book out called The Man Who Saved New York: Hugh Carey and the Great Fiscal Crises of 1975 that chronicles how he did it. I haven't read the book yet but in only two reviews I've learned some fascinating tidbits. One is how he managed to compromise when necessary and stand his ground when vital, and how he built up relationships and credibility with both Republicans and Democrats and was able to work with them to solve the problems. Another is how, of all people, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago and President Ford's then Chief-of-Staff conspired to strangle New York by refusing the bailout in an insane attempt to convince the financial industry to leave NYC and move to Chicago. They did this by putting pressure on the Illinois delegation in Congress to vote against the bailout. Fortunately, through Carey's maneuvering, Mayor Daley and this chief-of-staff were beaten and NYC got bailed out and the city was saved.

Today, when our city and state are staring down the barrel of yet another fiscal crises, we could really use another Hugh Carey. Here's hoping that, if he becomes governor, Andrew Cuomo will do his best. At the very least, he should read this book.

Oh, and what was the name of that Chief-of-Staff who didn't want to bailout NYC and had the crazy idea of relocating the financial industry to Chicago: Donald Rumsfeld! Not the first time he had a spectacularly bad idea (and his deputy chief-of-staff was a man name Dick Cheney who was also strongly against bailing out NYC -- as if we needed any more proof that these guys were just pure evil).

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