At lunch today, my friend Ed, an astute observer of Massachusetts and national politics posed the following question: “Can you name a mayor of a major American city who is looked upon as a national political figure?” I confess I was stumped. I briefly thought of Michael Bloomberg, but his national prominence seems mostly due to his constant (and unsuccessful) self-promotion. And he’s now running for a third term because he has no national political options.
Compare Bloomberg to John Lindsey, who was clearly seen as a national figure for all his years as Mayor of New York. Or, in a very different way, Frank Rizzo of Philadelphia, the epitome of the “law and order” mayor. Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young, who occupied the mayor’s office in Atlanta for 20 years, were major national spokesmen for civil rights issues. Young also served in Congress and as ambassador to the U.N. And the list goes on.
Closer to Home, Kevin White was seriously considered for Vice President by George McGovern, who most unwisely picked Senator Tom Eagleton instead. Compare White to Tom Menino who in 15 years has not become a national figure and has no prospect of doing so. The most recent mayor in national prominence I can recall is Chicago’s Bill Daley, who became Secretary of Commerce in the second Clinton administration, and then went on to chair Al Gore’s presidential campaign. That will soon be a decade ago.
American cities are the epicenters of much of the current crisis. And American mayors seem more removed than at any time in the past from being near the levels of national power and policy influence. This is a most unhealthy situation and turning it around will not be quick or easy.