For years, I only knew one other line from the above address by Hugh Carey: "Now the times of plenty, the days of wine and roses, are over." I had planned to use that as the “Quote of the Day” to commemorate the life of Hugh Carey, who died on Sunday at 92.
But when I came across the above quote from the biography of New York’s former governor by Seymour Lachman and Rob Polner (the latter a college friend of mine, as well as a very fine writer indeed), I knew that this, though far more prosaic than the better-known soundbite, fit not only Carey’s circumstances 36 years ago, but our own.
It was impossible to ignore the stark juxtaposition of recent events: as economy-weary citizens braced themselves for the impact of Standard and Poors’ downgrade of the nation’s credit rating, it heard about the passing of the politician who brought squabbling parties in America’s most fractious municipality together behind a plan to stave off a ruinous bankruptcy.
All too often, in an attempt to fill the 24-hour news cycle, the media get caught up in trivia about politicians. (Does anyone really care nowadays, for instance, that Jimmy Carter had a close encounter with a “killer rabbit”; that the first George Bush threw up on the prime minister of Japan; or that loyal-to-a-fault Harry Truman was criticized for "cronyism" toward longtime Missouri friends and political allies?)
Particularly toward the end of Governor Carey’s second term, that became especially true. The media ridiculed the widower’s misbegotten second marriage with a woman who lied about the number of her prior husbands, his rash offer to drink a glass of PCBs to ease fears of contamination at a state office building, his reference to one of the state’s U.S. Senate positions as a “Jewish seat.” No wonder, then, that by the end of his second term, Carey's approval rating dropped to around 25%.
But in the end, citizens remember politicians, for good or ill, for only one or two things. With Carey, that “thing” is easy to identify: he rescued New York City from a calamitous bankruptcy, brought on by mayors addicted to budget trickery and wishful thinking, as well as the profound disinterest of a prior governor (Nelson Rockefeller) whose own "edifice complex" left him in no position to complain about balancing the books.
Carey’s handling of New York’s financial crisis offers many object lessons for Washington pols as they consider how to extricate themselves from the folly they have brought on this country:
* Governing is not about words, but deeds. The Presidential ambitions of Mario Cuomo were taken much more seriously than his predecessor's. Much of that reputation was built on uncommon skill with language. As I can attest from seeing him at a luncheon nearly a quarter century ago, Cuomo could speak confidently off the cuff, even before an audience unsympathetic to his positions. But it’s also true that, to use Cuomo’s own metaphor, he was far better at the poetry of campaigning than the prose of governing. At a certain point, accomplishing something involves one-on-one persuasiveness rather than bringing crowds to their feet. It involves knowing when to stop talking and when to start doing. It’s an open question whether Cuomo, who loved to debate with the press in late-night phone calls and to tilt at legislators come budget time, would ever have pulled off the complex package of union concessions and fiscal reforms that Carey cobbled together in the nick of time.
* When a crisis is at hand, the time for finger-pointing is over. Carey was more than willing to mix it up with Republicans come November, but it was business, not personal, which made it easier for him--even in one of those moody periods that periodically afflicted him--to make common cause with them when necessary. When Carey endorsed Barack Obama for President during the primary season over Hilary Clinton, he praised the Illinois Senator for his willingness to reach across the aisle. That willingness was not greatly in evidence during the recent budget negotiations—and it’s no excuse that the House Republicans were even worse on this score.
* Experience counts. Before he got to Albany, Carey spent seven terms in Congress and had won a Bronze Star and the Croix de Guerre for his service in World War II. In other words, he had learned how to pull all the levers of power on Capitol Hill and had experienced some of the most stressful conditions imaginable. From watching his father struggle to save his oil-delivery business in the Depression and from witnessing his wife’s losing struggle to cancer, he was also temperamentally inclined to be tough in the face of extreme adversity. Even a number of Obama’s warmest supporters now acknowledge that his lack of preparation for the Presidency has proven to be problematic now. (Of course, if you're a Capitol Hill member of the Tea Party movement, it's hard to demonstrate tough when you're facing softball questions from Fox News' Sean Hannity.)
* Understand the gravity of the crisis you face. Carey dreaded the prospect of bankruptcy for New York City as “unthinkable,” and all of his efforts were geared toward averting this possibility. The same cannot be said for the Tea Party Republicans in the House, who, by refusing to raise the government’s debt ceiling, were prepared to trigger a default crisis or gradual government shutdown. If there is any justice in the world, they'll be punished at the polls for their insane intransigence.
* You can accomplish much if you don’t mind sharing the credit. In getting civil-rights legislation passed during his Presidency, Lyndon Johnson understood this principle, too, allowing Senator Everett Dirksen his moment in the spotlight for helping to make the measure an actuality. Carey acted under the same principle in appealing, at the height of his crisis, to Wall Street financier Felix Rohatyn. Referring to Rohatyn’s nickname, “Felix the Fixer,” Carey made clear how much credit would accrue to him for a successful outcome of the crisis. “It’s up to you,” Carey said. “Fixer or Savior.” Rohatyn chose "Savior," winning him otherwise-surprising adulation from the New York Review of Books and a reputation as a fiscal Wise Man for All Seasons.