NEW YORK — What's the "second toughest job in America?" CEO of Microsoft? Chairman of the Federal Reserve? Manager of the Boston Red Sox?
When New York Mayor John Lindsay used the slogan in his 1969 campaign, no one argued the point. (Though no one voted for him either when he ran for the top spot in the 1972 presidential primaries.) For generations, people the world over have looked to New York as the place where just about everything that matters happens first, best, or loudest.
The "New York, New York" of the Sinatra song is far grander than the New York that exists on the map. In the world's imagination, the city is a swirling dream of old musicals, Woody Allen movies, and "Seinfeld" reruns. "If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere." And if you get elected mayor, well, you must be something!
Mayors like Fiorello LaGuardia, John Lindsay, Ed Koch, and now Rudy Giuliani have appeared larger than life, uniquely capable of running the greatest city in the world. When Pope John Paul II visited during Mr. Koch's reign, he told the mayor, "I shall try and be a good citizen."
"You are a good citizen," Koch told the pontiff. "You are the first citizen of the world." Only a New York City mayor could try to boost a Pope's self esteem.
Mayor Giuliani has been equally forthright. No wonder the men running to succeed him in the Sept. 11 primary seem like a faceless pack. As Mr. Giuliani exits stage right, the oxygen of New York politics is escaping with him, like a punctured Snoopy balloon in the Thanksgiving Day parade.
Giuliani is the closest this lackluster campaign has to a focal point, and he's not even on the ballot. Thanks to term limits and his own tendency toward self-immolation, Giuliani's political career seems finished. But he looms over the race as a symbol of the tough, can-do approach many found lacking in some of his Democratic predecessors.
The men who would succeed Giuliani find their every move measured against Rudy's shadow. In a stunningly obvious political calculus, each has said he'd keep the parts of the Giuliani approach that work, and discard what doesn't.
The Democratic candidates include public advocate Mark Green (just endorsed by The New York Times), Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer, city comptroller Alan Hevesi, and city council president Peter Vallone. Billionaire publisher Michael Bloomberg is opposed in the GOP primary by former Rep. (and like Mr. Bloomberg, former Democrat) Herman Badillo. (Caveat emptor: I've been a consultant to Mark Green's campaigns, though not this one.)
Of the six contenders, only the abrasive, impulsive Bloomberg makes much of an impression, and it isn't always positive, like a combination of Ross Perot and Don Rickles. The rest roll out position papers, endorsements, and lately, attack ads and political counter-charges, but nothing seems to stick in the public's imagination.
No one is talking, as John Lindsay did, about the future that bustling, dynamic cities like New York can build for the entire nation. No one is winning the affections of New Yorkers as Mayor LaGuardia famously did when he read the comics over the radio during a newspaper strike. No one is defining himself as a vivid, compelling character in New Yorkers' lives - and New Yorkers love a character! They want bravado, they want guts, they want someone who's a little nuts - oh wait, they've got that in the Broadway hit, "The Producers."
On paper, each candidate can claim to be visionary. Their websites are full of policies, ideas, and passionate rhetoric. But the themes they've chosen to highlight in their debates, media events, and TV ads are safe, tested, and unsurprising.
Education, crime and safety, "the era of big government is over" - these are the messages heard all over the world, from New Democrats to New Labour to New York's mayoral race. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair showed how it's done: Co-opt the other party's best issues and encircle them with their worst. Good advice for winning elections, but not inspiring.
New York mayors used to be flamboyant populists like Fiorello "the Little Flower" LaGuardia and "Gentleman" Jimmy Walker, who championed the little guy. Now they're policy wonks who kowtow to Wall Street.
But the real winner is Giuliani and New York's once-puny and powerless Republican Party. Giuliani leaves office the way Ronald Reagan left the White House, having transformed the way people perceive his office and shaken up both political parties. By casting such a profound shadow over this year's election, he's shaping the next mayoralty as well.
William S. Klein is a political consultant and commentator.