New York isn't presidential country
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 23 June 2007)

In the last six decades Texas has produced three American presidents and California two, while Missouri, Kansas, Georgia, Michigan and Arkansas have contributed one apiece. Remarkably, New York's total for the same period is zero. There's been no New Yorker in the White House since Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945. That seems outlandish, possibly verging on the unfair, when you think about the power New York has accumulated in the same period.

During most of this time New York has managed American money from Wall Street and American opinion through its TV and publishing empires. Yet New Yorkers (and politicians choosing New York as their base) have gone nowhere in national politics.

That's one reason spectators at the tournament of presidential politics were elated this week when Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City announced that he's left the Republicans to become an Independent. He could have only one reason, a plan to run for president.

His decision raised a distant but nevertheless tantalizing possibility -- that the 2008 presidential election could be fought by three New Yorkers: Hillary Clinton for the Democrats, Rudolph Giuliani for the Republicans and Bloomberg as an Independent. Americans who hate New York and its cosmopolitan, liberal ways would be faced with a horrifying prospect. They would have to vote for a New Yorker or not vote.

History since 1945 seems to have followed an unwritten rule: New Yorkers can have a place on a national ticket only as vice-presidential candidates and only when the party's outlook is bleak. They are graciously allowed to lose.

Geraldine Ferraro, from The Bronx and Queens, was the Democrats' VP nominee in 1984, when Walter Mondale was trying to unseat Ronald Reagan and nobody outside Mondale's family imagined it could be done. In 1996 Jack Kemp of Buffalo ran for VP behind the Republican candidate, Senator Bob Dole, who moseyed through a lackadaisical, vote-for-me-if-you-feel-like-it campaign. There was a tragic exception to the pattern: in 1968 Senator Robert Kennedy seemed a likely president until he was assassinated.

To find a New York politician achieving national office you have to go back 33 years, to vice-president Nelson Rockefeller -- and Rockefeller's two years in that job symbolized not success but his own and New York's failure. An heir to Standard Oil, he dreamt White House dreams in childhood ("When you think of what I had, what else was there to aspire to?") but became a famous loser.

He did everything right: Served in the administrations of both Roosevelt and Eisenhower, won four terms as governor of New York, employed Henry Kissinger as his personal thinker, even chaired an Advisory Committee on Government Organization for Eisenhower.

But in 1964, he was derailed on the way to the Republican nomination. The right viewed him as liberal, an entirely valid assessment. All New York politicians try at least to look liberal. That's the only way to get elected, but it damages them elsewhere. The right capitalized on the gossip surrounding Rockefeller's divorce and remarriage and made him look like a scoundrel by the time he arrived at the national convention. The party chose Barry Goldwater, who lost (with Rep. William E. Miller of Buffalo as his running mate) to Lyndon Johnson but prepared the way for Ronald Reagan.

Rockefeller finally got close to the presidency when president Gerald Ford (who had moved to the White House following Richard Nixon's resignation) chose him as vice-president. The man who liked to say "I never wanted to be vice-president of anything" had to settle for being appointed to that job by someone who was himself appointed, an ignominious accomplishment.

A presidential year of three New Yorkers would be as rare as a year of three popes, but that did happen, in 1978. Bloomberg's candidacy is the longest of long shots, of course, and every independent candidate goes into the contest knowing that the future likely holds defeat, as with Ross Perot in 1992, George Wallace in 1968 or Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. But Bloomberg can afford a self-financed campaign (he won't miss half a billion or so in expenses), he'll get enormous national attention for whatever policy ideas he cherishes, and the whole process will make 2008 one of the most interesting years of his life. He said on Wednesday that he probably wouldn't run if the Republicans chose Giuliani. But then he's indicated several times, pretty clearly, that he wasn't going to run at all. Turns out he's had his employees planning the campaign for two years.

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