Rhetorical Bankruptcy

POLITICS

WHEN PRESIDENT FORD was telling New York City to drop dead last month, he evoked a vision of the city as a wayward family to drive home his point. "Responsibility for New York City's financial problems," he said, "is being left on the front doorstep of the federal government--unwanted and abandoned by its real parents." Ron Nessen had used the same kind of metaphor a little earlier, when he called the city "a wayward daughter hooked on heroin."

It's a strange set of images to use for a complex financial problem, but a powerful one as well, for Ford and Nessen were identifying New York with sons that run deeply against the grain of the American value system. What Ford is really trying to do to New York is to separate it from the American spiritual community. Accusing it of perverting the most integral and sacred element of that community--the family--is the sharpest rhetorical way to effect that separation.

New York's Mayor Abraham Beame and Governor Hugh Carey seem well aware of Ford's rhetorical aim. Their own arguments about New York are designed to bring it back into the fold, to identify it as strongly as possible with the rest of America, and to describe it in the smallest, least intimidating terms possible. "We need not a handout," Carey complained bitterly last month, "but the recognition by the Federal Government that we are a part of this country." Beame ended a long speech last week by conjuring up the same kind of vision. "We cannot avoid our national responsibilities," he said, "by branding our greatest city a pariah."

The metaphors fly back and forth, as both sides try to play on old American themes in order to associate or dissociate New York and the people of this country. To Ford the city is big and inhuman, and that prevents it from being part of the American community; Beame, rather than equating bigness with community by way of retaliation, cloaks his city in a rhetoric of smallness, simplicity and personality. That Beame must deny the city's bigness to defend it as a community shows that the American ideal of city-as-community (like John Winthrop's city on a hill) is in practice completely incompatible with what cities generally turn out to be.

FORD BEGAN HIS SPEECH firmly in the city-as-ideal framework--he called New York the place "through whose Golden Door untold millions have entered this land of liberty"--but was quick and sure about miring the real city in incomprehensible bigness. He spoke of the difficulty of sorting out the truth in "this terribly complex situation," a task that would be made possible only by unadorned "straight talk." His New York is in a "quagmire," with a "stream" of budgets, "massive growth" and "extraordinary increases." Things have gotten out of hand; they have risen out of proportion with the human capabilities.

Hence for Ford it is the banks--large, powerful, mechanical things--that are running the show, and the people are powerless. The banks want a limitless "blank check" from the government to help them "escape responsibility" and "be further excused from making the hard decisions." If the fiscal crisis has made New York disorderly, irresponsible, weak and dishonest, it is precisely because the city is no longer a community of people, but an agglomeration of institutions. New York bankers and officials are "desperate," but the people will not be "stampeded" by them. If Ford's attack on the banks is wholly inconsistent with his politics, it is his only recourse within the rules of this game; he has to use a villian, however implausible, to separate the people from the problem.

(The businessmen themselves, by the way, have done a terrible job of creating a benign image for themselves; they talk just the way Ford expects them to. The Chase Manhattan Bank called for federal funds for the city in September, creating in its argument an impersonal clockwork world where there will be "sufficient controls," "checkpoints," "mechanisms in action.")

It is a dreary set of words Ford calls upon for the answer. He uses adjectives like solid, clean, responsible, fair, sensible, and, over and over, orderly to present his vision of the city's salvation. These are simple words, ones that everyone understands; they share none of the exotic quality of the words applied to the city's present state (mirage, rescue, frighten, panic), and they are grounded firmly in an individual human scale. New York words have a huge order of magnitude, connoting sweeping events. Non-New York words are home truths, individual virtues.

Where Ford spoke of the fiscal crisis as complex, to Beame, counterattacking a week later, it was "simple and compelling." In fact the word simple reappears throughout Beame's speech, as if to put the whole situation back on the understandable, individual terms from which Ford tried to remove it. Where Ford uses his strange, harum-scarum words for New York, Beame uses them for a federal government that won't come through--it's the government, not the city, that would bring on tragedy, plague, exorcism, humiliation, impoverishment and evasion. The government's non-intervention may threaten to open the floodgates to all sorts of abnormal and complex things, but there is "nothing abstract" about the city's problems. The crisis is accessible to plain people; the government's callousness is not.

If Ford's New York is machinelike and anti-individual, Beame's is plain, small scale, an integral part of America. "New York is truly an American city," he says. "It is a town [!] which had a stake in the American Dream 150 years before the United States was born." This New York, practically a preurban village by this point in the speech, is concerned with the welfare of "the innocent, the powerless and the least resilient members of our society." It has all the homespun virtues Ford feels so much fondness for; its sense of humanity and of national community remains intact, perhaps even strengthened by the crisis.

FORD AND BEAME at their most vivid talk about New York in medical terms. To Ford the city is suffering from an "insidious disease" from which other cities and the federal government are not immune. "It's a progressive disease," Ford explained, "and there are no painless cures." Not to say that some haven't tried; it's just that "those who have been treating New York's financial sickness have been prescribing larger and larger doses of the same political stimulants." It is important, he said, not to "let that contagion spread." Ford's diagnosis has New York in the grips of something big and strange and powerful, something that threatens the rest of us. His city disease is unmistakably cancer--it's alien, it grows fast, and it has to be removed rather than cured.

It's telling that in his answer to Ford, Beame picked up the metaphor of disease but changed its nature substantially. "The best cure for our financial ills," he said, "is to have an opportunity to recuperate under a strictly supervised regimen of reform and retrenchment." Beame's New York is sick, to be sure, but it's the kind of sickness that gets better with time and care. This disease is the sort a child would come down with, the sort any responsible parent would devote himself to curing. If the whole thing is a smokescreen, Ford's concern with the people of New York bears little relation to the effect his policies will have on them--it is at least consistent with most American political rhetoric. A few pieces of home truth serve to obscure and even replace the real issues involved, and force the debate onto an arcane and unreal level. It leaves Beame pleading, sadly and lamely, that his convalescent is, after all, a member of the family.