Live From New York

Ground Zeroes

George W. Bush will win Baghdad's heart before he ever wins New York's.

By 4.17.03

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Monitoring the developments in Baghdad, commentators wonder whether the Iraqi people will continue to show gratitude for U.S. troops, as most have, or become increasingly resentful and antagonistic, as some are doing now. But closer to home, we have our own analogy to that situation, and we know which way the sentiment tips. No matter what George W. Bush does in response to the September 11th attacks, New Yorkers will hate him for it.

As a New Yorker, I find the widespread anger and opposition to the war in Iraq embarrassing. The outcry against military action in Afghanistan was small, and largely confined to the contingent of professional protesters who oppose all military interventions. But the demonstrations over the war in Iraq have been enormous, and could only be so with the influx of more reasonable types, people with jobs, families, and rationality.

How disheartening it has been to see these crowds in New York City, of all places. Here we are, inhabitants at the scene of the crime, and most Manhattanites seem dead-set on opposing everything that Bush does to remedy the situation. At the outset of hostilities on March 19th, the city opposed the war by a margin of 51 to 35 percent. Fifty-five percent of those polled disapproved of the way Bush had handled the situation. Now, with the war all but over, support has grown to 50 percent, still well below the national average.

Part of the problem is that New Yorkers, like many war opponents, do not feel that Iraq is part of the war on terror. A poll in November indicated that a whopping 68 percent of respondents agreed with the statement "the question of war with Iraq is unrelated to the attacks of 9/11." But the unease of New Yorkers is about more than the administration's confused justifications. After all, over 70 percent of the country supports the war, whatever their misgivings might be.

At its heart, what motivates the New York opposition is visceral distrust or outright hatred for George W. Bush. As others have noted, Bill Clinton's many military adventures provoked no demonstrations in Manhattan, or at least none that were attended by the aforementioned respectable types. But George Bush was branded a fascist even before he began taking action against Islamo-fascism. It didn't help, of course, that Bush took office in a disputed election. For a city that voted 79-15 for Al Gore, its pre-existing animosity is heightened by conviction that Bush engineered a coup for the presidency. This belief, still widely held around the city, is illustrative of one of the most underrated traits of Manhattan residents: their capacity for paranoia.

And this is very much a New York City, not a New York State, phenomenon. A poll taken last week by the cable channel New York 1 showed a stunning disparity in Bush's poll numbers in the city and the state. Just 50 percent of city residents approve of the job Bush is doing on the war, compared to 71 percent in the suburbs and 76 percent upstate.

The resistance in Manhattan to Bush's strong action on the war is reminiscent of the opposition Rudy Giuliani experienced in his war against crime. In 1993, when Giuliani was elected mayor, the city's crime rate was off the charts. The city had experienced over 2,000 homicides the year before, and Democratic mayor David Dinkins had essentially pledged to do nothing about it. What's more, city residents largely adhered to the view that nothing could be done about it. On the contrary, they felt taking action against the threat in the way Giuliani was proposing to do was bound to create more problems. We know how that story worked out, and a similar dynamic is at work again. Last week, 49 percent of New Yorkers said they felt "less safe" with the war in Iraq going on vs. only 20 percent who feel more safe.

For all the poll numbers, though, the most compelling evidence that New Yorkers oppose Bush more than they oppose the war is not based on social science. If you live here long enough, New Yorkers' hostility to the president is like the air that you breathe. In the time that he has held office, I have worked for two companies that could not have been more different from one another: one a small and terminally ill dot-com, the other a multinational Fortune 500 company. At the same time, I've done freelance work in an entirely different sector. And I have old friends from my former sojourns in the nonprofit and academic worlds. In all of these environments, the hatred for Bush is over the top, crossing well beyond hostility to his policies to include indictments of him as a war criminal and fascist who is no better than Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden.

As with most big issues in politics, the opposition to Bush in New York City is based on culture. New Yorkers simply detest the man. They see him as a yahoo who combines three dangerous traits -- ignorance, arrogance, and belligerence. They see him as the representative of an unrepentant Old Boy Southern culture, one that will not speak the contemporary language of guilt and vacillation that Bill Clinton used so skillfully. They see him as an oilman entrepreneur with little patience for bureaucracies and unions. They see him as the scion of a wealthy and successful family -- an overdog, if you will. And they see him as that most dangerous of all creatures, a devout Christian whose invocations possess a terrifying lack of self-doubt. New Yorkers can live with professions of religious faith if they are bland and devoid of moral choices, as are Bill Clinton's, or if they are devout but in the service of self-destruction, as are Jimmy Carter's. But Bush's religious talk combines moral clarity with the pursuit of the national interest. Not even Giuliani was that scary.

I ride the subways every day, stand in line at supermarkets, talk to my neighbors in the elevator, overhear conversations in coffee shops. I wonder where the 50 percent of New Yorkers who I am told support this war are hiding. There were only a few thousand of them at the pro-war rally at Ground Zero last week. Wherever they are, the number among them who would also count themselves as Bush supporters is certainly smaller.

Over a year and a half since September 11th, a president who had very little affinity for New York continues forging a war that was started by an attack on New York. His determination to continue shows no sign of wavering. And the city that is the most direct beneficiary of his efforts remains as determined as ever to hate him.

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Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.