Down and Dirty: Mayor Bloomberg Learns from Senator Joseph McCarthy, Lessons from the Dark Side of Politics

“Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” Joseph N. Welch

The current Broadway revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man places us in the middle of a fictional 1960 presidential party convention; the antagonists are a folksy, unscrupulous conservative religious candidate (think Santorum/Pallin) and an erudite, Harvard-educated ex-Governor (perhaps Kerry/Clinton). The play centers on the conflict over the threat of the “unscrupulous” candidate to release medical records showing his opponent had a nervous breakdown and the moral dilemma of his opponent who refuses to use records alleging a gay relationship of his opponent. The climax is a series of speeches bemoaning the depths to which politics has fallen – to the applause of the audience.

Has politics “fallen to the depths of moral decay,” or, are we idealizing a past that never existed?

One of most powerful and effective ruler-politicians of a bygone era was one of my favorites – Cleopatra.

Stacy Schiff in “Cleopatra’s Guide to Good Government”  lists lessons from the Pharaoh’s reign,

Obliterate your rivals. Co-opting the competition is good. Eliminating it is better. Cleopatra made quick work of her siblings, which sounds uncouth. As Plutarch noted, however, such behavior was axiomatic among sovereigns. It happened in the best of families.

The royal rules for dispensing with blood relatives were as inflexible as those of geometry. Cleopatra lost one brother in her civil war against him; allegedly poisoned a second; arranged the murder of her surviving sister. She thereafter reigned supreme.

I always had my students read excerpts from Machiavelli’s The Prince,  written as a “how to” manual for 16th century rulers,

“A wise ruler ought never to keep faith when by doing so it would be against his interests.”

Let’s not forget the author of the Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes,

“To this war of every man against every man, this also in consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law, where no law, no injustice. Force, and fraud, are in war the cardinal virtues”

Thomas Jefferson, one of our most revered founding fathers, the author of the Declaration of Independence, a strict believer of the separation of church and state had no problems with engineering an affair between Alexander Hamilton, his arch enemy and a blackmailer’s wife and making sure the “dirty details” were published. The Reynolds Affair was the “talk of the town” in 1797.

scandalmonger, James Callender, was slinging dirt for Jefferson. And he hit pay dirt. Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds of Philadelphia had a lucrative business. They were blackmailing Alexander Hamilton. Mr. Reynolds had his wife seduce Hamilton. Which she did. And did well. They had an affair. And Mr. Reynolds then blackmailed him. Jefferson pounced. Or, rather, Callender did. To keep Jefferson’s hands clean. Hamilton, Callender said, was using his position at the Treasury Department for personal gain. He was using public funds to pay the blackmailer. They found no proof of this. And they did look for it. Hard. But when they came up empty, Jefferson said that it just proved what a good thief Hamilton was. He was so good that he didn’t leave any traces of his treachery behind.

The First Amendment protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press, much-treasured freedoms. The downside, a downside that we simply have to accept, is that the unscrupulous can use these freedoms as weapons against their political opponents.

In the evening of his mayoralty, Bloomberg’s supposed crowning achievement, the re-making of the NYS school system is increasingly tarnished, Rather than being hailed as the mayor who righted a sinking ship the public sees Bloomberg’s educational policies as a failure. In Sisyphus-like fashion, in spite of the obvious failures of his Joel Klein inspired educational initiatives, the boulder keeps sliding back down the mountain. The mayor suffers from a tragic flaw, recounted by the Greeks – hubris.

For the mayor the problem is not the failure of bad policy but his chief political opponent – UFT President Michael Mulgrew. The mayor, as many before him, has chosen to attempt to destroy those that disagree with him – not revisit the policies.

When a ridiculous, frivolous lawsuit was filed by a teacher, claiming that the city held the union president hostage due to allegations of an inappropriate relationship years earlier, and, therefore prevented him from defending himself from undefined “harassment,” the mayor seized the moment.

I can only speculate that Deputy Mayor for Communications Howard Wolfson called his guy at the Post (owned by scandal plagued Rupert Murdoch) who whispered to the editor and low and behold front page stories about the allegations.

My e-mailbox was full with questions: Was it true? Isn’t it terrible that a newspaper can sink so low?

In school we learn the idealistic side of politics – in the marketplace of ideas the best ideas win out. In the real world, policy-makers fight for the hearts and minds of the populace. The only rule is there are no rules.

The lesson of Cleopatra, killing off your potential rivals (hopefully in the metaphorical sense) is alive and well and seems the core of current political strategy.


One response to “Down and Dirty: Mayor Bloomberg Learns from Senator Joseph McCarthy, Lessons from the Dark Side of Politics

  1. “All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible.”
    “Power attracts the corruptible. Suspect all who seek it.”
    “We should grant power over our affairs only to those who are reluctant to hold it and then only under conditions that increase the reluctance.” Frank Herbert.
    Did Mr. Herbert know our mayor?


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