The Toughest Job in America

Who was really "America's Mayor," Rudy Giuliani or John V. Lindsay?

Each could stake a credible claim to that rubric, which was the title of a book by Rob Polner in 2005 about Giuliani and of one that I just edited on Lindsay for the Museum of the City of New York and Columbia University Press. Even the Lindsay book's subtitle might have worked for both: "The Re-invention of New York.")

Both were Republicans in a Democratic town (or what used to be one, given that if a Democrat gets elected in 2013 he or she will be the first in 24 years). Both succeeded predecessors who were perceived as wimpy. Both vowed to reverse the prevailing wisdom that New York was ungovernable (Lindsay is largely perceived to have failed; Giuliani succeeded). Both saved their city -- Lindsay from the race riots that devastated other cities and Giuliani from the paralysis that might have followed 9/11. Both were blinded by adulation that was more about their celebrity than about their political popularity and that was heightened in direct proportion to their distance from home. Both ran for president. Both were delivered to mortifying defeats.

Michael Bloomberg might yet defy the odds (he has never revealed how much he spent not running in 2008), but the mayoralty -- of New York in particular -- has proved to be more of a diving board into a political swamp than a springboard to higher office.

No former mayor of any city has been elected president since Grover Cleveland of Buffalo in 1884 and Calvin Coolidge of Northampton, Mass., in 1924. No former mayor of New York has won federal elective office since Fernando Wood was elected to Congress in 1862. (He would be formally censured by his Congressional colleagues for doing what many New Yorkers do naturally: bluntly speaking his mind.) The last New York mayor to win higher office was John T. Hoffman who became governor in 1868 and was embroiled in scandal. (Mark Twain, running as an independent against Hoffman and another rival, wrote, ''I somehow felt that I had one prominent advantage over these gentlemen, and that was, good character.'')

In the 20th century, Mayor George B. McClellan received three votes at the 1904 Democratic National Convention. Robert F. Wagner flirted with the vice presidency (he ran fourth on the first convention ballot in 1956). In 1982, Mayor Edward I. Koch unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor.

John Lindsay was re-elected in 1969 by casting the mayoralty as "the second toughest job in America" (an implicit gibe at his rivals, suggesting they weren't up to it, and an appeal to New Yorkers to forgive his mistakes). This might have been one time the mayor was guilty of understatement.

As Wallace S. Sayre and Herbert Kaufman wrote presciently more than a generation ago in Governing New York City, the presidency can elevate the most mediocre of men, but the mayoralty ''is the highly vulnerable symbol of all the defects in the city and its government.''