I was reminded of this debt the other day, when the New York Times ran an item headlined “Dinkins, in Book, Blames Racism for Re-election Loss.”
The story was, quite simply, this: Dinkins, who defeated Rudy Giuliani in the 1989 election for mayor of New York and was beaten by Giuliani four years later, is about to come out with a memoir in which he says the following about his 1993 defeat: “I think it was just racism, pure and simple.”
In other words, New York voters were apparently more racist in 1993 than in 1989.
As it happens, I was a New York City voter when Dinkins and Giuliani first faced off against each other. It was a time when the city was in desperate need of competent and courageous leadership. The streets were pigsties; crime levels were sky-high; prostitutes and drug merchants hawked their wares on midtown avenues without apparent fear of arrest. As George L. Kelling recalled many years later in City Journal, Bryant Park, directly behind in the New York Public Library, was “an open-air drug market” and Grand Central Terminal “a gigantic flophouse.” The garbage-filled, graffiti-covered subways had been all but taken over by gangs of thugs, causing ridership to plummet; for motorists, meanwhile, stopping for a light at certain intersections meant having your windshield assaulted by some hobo wielding a wet, filthy squeegee and demanding money. The Port Authority Bus Terminal, with its armies of beggars, pickpockets, addicts, and, for all one knew, zombies, was the ninth circle of hell, a gallery of modern urban ills at their worst. (Admittedly, it's still not exactly heaven.) Indeed, the whole 42nd Street/Times Square area was one big cesspit of humanity, where you felt you could catch a deadly disease just walking down the sidewalk.
All this needed to be fixed, and pronto. But who was up to the task? Objectively, there was no contest.
Dinkins was a drab cog in New York's Democratic Party machine; Giuliani was a spectacularly successful federal and state prosecutor whose heroic indictment and prosecution of the heads of New York's five Mafia families had helped break the back of organized crime in America.
Plainly, Giuliani was the man for the job. Yet from the get-go, the media were in the tank for Dinkins. Giuliani had put high-level mobsters, inside traders, and corrupt politicians behind bars, but the media relentlessly painted him as a meanspirited, hotheaded fascist (yes, that's the word many of them used – fascist) while depicting Dinkins (who, if elected, would become the Big Apple's first black mayor) as a walking promise of social harmony and a mild-mannered, dignified symbol of what he himself called the city's “gorgeous mosaic.”
It wasn't as if I wholeheartedly trusted the media. As someone who'd been writing for almost a decade about left-wing cultural politics, I had what I thought was a very healthy cynicism about the media. But I had no clue just how actively, consummately perfidious they could be – how thoroughly prepared, in the case of (for example) a hotly contested electoral campaign, to suppress facts that might sink their candidate and to publish lies designed to crush his opponent. When virtually all of the news media at my disposal fervently agreed that Giuliani was a fascist, or at best a near-fascist or proto-fascist, it worked: I, who had not made a close study of his career, took their word for it and voted for Dinkins.
Dinkins won. And he proved nothing less than disastrous. Instead of tamping down the city's racial divisions, he seemed to manage, with virtually everything he did and said, to intensify them. (Sound familiar?) As Steven Malanga has written, Dinkins “wholly embraced the War on Poverty’s core belief that the problems of the urban poor sprang from vast external forces over which neither they nor the politicians had much control....Accordingly, Dinkins wanted to turn the police into social workers. His police commissioner, Lee Brown, believed that cops should stop reacting to crime and become neighborhood 'problem solvers.'” It was under Dinkins, Malanga recalls, that “the police let blacks terrorize Orthodox Jews for several days” in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. With Dinkins in charge, the worst elements of the black community felt untouchable.
On Dinkins's watch, welfare outlays soared – as did crime. By the end of his term, his name had become a byword for utter incompetence and ineffectuality. Things were so bad, and Dinkins was so obviously in over his head, that I – like tens of thousands of others – snapped out of my media-induced disaffection for Giuliani and eagerly pulled the lever for him in 1993.
He won. And he saved New York.
This feat is the stuff of legend. His “zero tolerance” approach – which, to quote Malanga again, “cracked down on quality-of-life offenses like panhandling and public urination (in a city where some streets reeked of urine), in order to restore a sense of civic order that he believed would discourage larger crimes” – earned the wrath and condescension of professional do-gooders and the media, who accused him of being heartless, brutal, and racist. Ever since, stalwart members of that faction have dismissed or disparaged Giuliani's achievement or attributed New York's miraculous revival to other factors. But the great majority of New Yorkers saw the change happen with their own eyes and knew very well what had made it happen. Giuliani's policies dramatically altered their everday lives. Rarely has a local politician made such a huge positive difference so quickly for so many.
No, it wasn't racism that lost Dinkins the 1993 election. It was realism. He won in 1989 mainly because the media, thrilled by the prospect of a Great Society-style administration helmed by a black guy, painted Giuliani as a Mussolini in the making. Four years later, Dinkins went down to defeat for one reason: New York, under his governance, was very clearly headed south, and fast. If New Yorkers owe Dinkins anything, they owe him thanks for opening their eyes to the fact that without a massive policy turnaround, New York could easily become another Newark or Detroit.
And I, too, owe the man a debt of gratitude. He woke me up, once and for all, to the unmitigated perfidy of which even the most “trusted” big media are capable; he made me realize that even if every major news organ in the country labeled somebody a racist or fascist or anything of the kind, I was duty-bound to look into the facts myself.
Fascist, indeed! I would never fall for that one again. For that, then, Mr. Dinkins, muchas gracias.
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