People who know me are fully aware of how cynical I am and can be about a lot of things in life, especially when it comes to politics. So a few random thoughts here about the politics of Hurricane Sandy of the very cynical sort.
The first thing is that the storm has confirmed New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg as the repugnant jerk we always thought him to be. The billionaire founder and owner of the Bloomberg financial empire, the self-centered friend of Fifth and Park Avenues and the pal of some of Wall Street’s more execrable burghers, has emerged from Hurricane Sandy as the undisputed Mayor not of New York but Manhattan, that is the bit of city where under Bloomberg’s three-term mayoralty rents have become so high that it really has become off limits to all but the wealthy.
Listening to his press conferences in the days after the storm hit – which we were obliged to do on the radio but not the TV as our bit of the Bronx had lost all power – it was clear that his main and nearly only focus was on Manhattan. Now admittedly a huge chunk of the lower part of the island, from 34th Street on the west side and 42nd Street on the east, had lost power and people there were badly suffering but it has since become very evident that other boroughs, especially Staten Island and Long Island, were hit much harder.
But those areas barely rated a mention by Mayor Mike (incidentally National Public Radio’s New York station WNYC was guilty of the same sin, confirming through its specials on the aftermath of Sandy, its own obsession with Manhattan). Nor has he visited those parts of the city which he is also supposed to be mayor of, areas that were actually hit harder. We should have known earlier about the disasters in the outer boroughs and would have had the Bloomberg administration done its job – but that didn’t happen.
Staten Island, according to one report I read, accounted for half the city’s death toll of forty (as of Friday evening). In Long Island the devastation has been extreme with whole districts left homeless; in one area of the Rockaways some 130 homes were burned to the ground by a fire fanned by hurricane winds. Locals complain at the complete absence of FEMA and say that gas and food are rapidly running out. The weather is getting colder and another fierce winter storm is forecast for next week. There could be and probably will be many more deaths in the outer boroughs where residents are being told that power may be restored by mid-November if they are lucky. But Bloombie has not been seen once in either or any of those areas. But he has toured Manhattan. Several times. As I write this, CBS is reporting that power has been restored to most of lower Manhattan. Great! As for the boroughs? Suck it up.
When finally I got access to the internet, a three hour drive away from our home in the Bronx, I managed to look at a map of the blackouts on ConEd’s website there was one little spot in lower Manhattan where the power was on, a glittering sapphire in a sea of black velvet. No prizes for guessing where. Yes, you got it. The financial district, where Bloomberg’s pals hang out (in fact NYSE officials confirmed that although the market was closed on Monday & Tuesday they could have run the computerized dealings which nowadays account for most of the trading but decided not to [perhaps because it would have put a harsh focus on their privileged access to electricity!]).
A measure of the extent to which Bloomberg was out of touch with the feelings of New Yorkers came with his insistence that the annual marathon, scheduled for day six of the Sandy aftermath, should go ahead despite the fact that the runners would pass by spots where dead bodies had lain for two days or near streets where more were homeless than were housed.
Bloomberg said the marathon brought thousands of foreign runners and millions of dollars to the city but the residents of Staten Island and Long Beach said it was the worst of bad taste. (I don’t know what sort of people travel to places like New York for marathons but I did once encounter a woman who had run in the Los Angeles race. She was on the same flight to Belfast and I overheard part of her life history: she lived in Hollywood, Co Down (Northern Ireland’s equivalent of Fifth Avenue), her daddy was a retired Assistant Chief Constable in the Royal Ulster Constabulary and she herself was an up and coming barrister who was on first name terms, or so she said, with judges. )
It would be difficult to describe the outrage in the outer boroughs at Bloomberg but the fact that for several days the mayor seemed oblivious and even unsympathetic to the anger was an eloquent measure of how far out of touch, or uncaring, he was. There were two straws that broke the camel’s back and forced Bloomberg to cancel the race – and both illustrated his real attitude to non-Manhattan New York.
One was the disclosure that a generator capable of supplying power to 400 Sandy-devastated homes had been set aside for the post marathon entertainment of the runners – and this as thousands of his fellow citizens sat shivering in idling cars to keep warm knowing that when the gas ran out so would their luck. The other was that scores and scores of portaloos had been set up for the exclusive use of the runners. Now in parts of the city, especially high rise public projects, old folk had been marooned in buildings where the elevators no longer worked, where access to the street was via dangerous, unlit stairways and where lavatories had ceased to flush because power failures had stopped the flow of water. The marathon runners could use the portaloos but not these people.
The other cynical observation concerns Barack Obama who faces re-election this Tuesday. No sooner had the winds from Sandy died down than Obama was on a plane to New Jersey to spend time with a guy who is surely one of the more obnoxious pieces of work in American politics. I am talking about the loud mouthed, egotistical, blustering, far-right bully know as Governor Chris Christie.
The two of them fast became best buddies, with Christie, who has been an energetic campaigner for Mitt Romney, heaping effusive and even embarrassing praise at every possible media opportunity on a president everyone knows he really loathes. Endless photos of them appeared, the pair – one as tall and thin as a beanstalk, the other an over-ripe plum on legs – like new lovers on deserted if ravaged beaches on the Atlantic coast.
Now the conventional media take on this expedition to New Jersey says that the President was merely doing his job, offering as much humanitarian help as he could to the part of America hardest hit by the storm and Christie, knowing it would be churlish and even politically costly in this normally Democrat-leaning state, to act the begrudger. And it may well be that he was genuinely grateful for the unstinting help Obama had brought. Perhaps, but then……..
As for cynical old me, I couldn’t help contrasting all this with Obama’s absence from New York, where there were many more storm-related deaths and arguably destruction every bit as serious if not as widespread. New York is but a short hop from New Jersey, he could easily have made it and spent a few short hours sharing New Yorkers’ pain – but he didn’t. I think Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano (who?) has been here or will be but I can’t be sure.
So why did Obama choose to go to New Jersey but not to New York. Well, I think the answer lies in the election to be held next week. Christie may be an oaf but he is a talented and articulate one and an asset to the Romney campaign. If Romney could have counted on Christie to come out swinging against Obama after the storm alleging that the President had callously neglected New Jersey, that he didn’t care about fellow Americans, that would have been a powerful weapon to wield in the final days of what was always going to be a closely fought battle.
So, did Obama come to New Jersey in order to neutralize the threat a Hurricane Sandy-armed Christie presented to his re-election chances? I think that is a distinct possibility. I am not saying Obama didn’t care about the people of New Jersey because clearly he did – but he seems to have cared more about them than New Yorkers. As it was, the trip turned out even better than he could ever have imagined, with Christie falling over himself to heap tributes on Obama (an indication also, perhaps, that a Romney defeat would also suit him admirably!). Wouldn’t it be great to be a fly on the wall of the Romney strategy room?