Sense and Nonsense: The Marlin Factor in New York

This year, the mayor’s race in New York City — always of special interest to Americans — may just be more important than ever. This interest in New York, of course, is not because it is everyone’s favorite city.

Yet, New York is a city most Americans have visited and all know about. The outlines of the city are in our bones — the Hudson, the East River, the Empire State Building, the World Trade Center, the United Nations, Carnegie Hall, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Town Hall, Saint John the Divine, the Lincoln Center, the theaters, Central Park, Harlem, Macy’s, the Metropolitan Museum, Columbia, Fordham, NYU, Hebrew Union, and CCNY, Grand Central Station, Broadway and Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, Staten Island, and Brooklyn, the Statue of Liberty, the George Washington Bridge, 42nd Street, the Bronx, Laguardia and Kennedy Airports, the Yankees, and the world’s most desecrated subways. All of these and a thousand more places, ideas, and smells like pastrami and rye have be-come part of our very civil lore as Americans.

Besides, to be pragmatic, New York City has the fourth largest budget in the country, smaller than only that of the federal government, State of California, and New York State, but larger than Texas and most countries of the world. That is to say, your tax money goes to New York City whether you like it or not. When New York fails, we are all in trouble.

I bring this account of New York up because my friend George Marlin is running for Mayor of New York City on the Conservative Party ticket, a run that was made famous by William F. Buckley in 1965. Crisis readers know George Marlin. He is the General Editor of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, a fighter for the neighborhoods of New York, practically all of which he knows (see “The Battle for New York’s Neighborhoods,” February). He is writing a history of New York politics. I do not think there is a street, or tavern, or church, or story about New York that George Marlin does not know.

 

Does George Marlin have a chance to win? He has a chance. But he does not even have to win to upset the Big Apple Cart of American politics. His candidacy is of national import in several ways. George Marlin is an Irish Catholic, the kind of political animal that New York once made famous and vice versa, only, as the New York Times put it, “in person, he exudes the air of a philosophy professor, keeping scribbled quotes from favorite books in his pocket and wearing small oval glasses that slide down his nose.”

Marlin’s candidacy is in part the well-grounded claim that the reason for the problems of New York City is that this rich and sane heritage of practical and local politics has been abandoned. And this tradition is not just of Irish origin; it has Italian, Jewish, Latino, black, and a thousand other local components. It is a heritage of principles and of common sense. This tradition is what has been abandoned, and neither the Democratic nor the Republican-Liberal candidate fully understands it.

This practical heritage is one the liberal has never understood, with the dire result that most of the solutions put into law in the last 50 years have only made things worse by making them more expensive, more bureaucratized, and more antagonistic to personal and familial dignity. Everyone suspects this conclusion is true, but only Marlin articulates it clearly and forcefully. He is the only new and colorful and, yes, incisive voice in this election.

Both major party candidates are extreme liberals at heart and at word, even though one is a Democrat and the other a Republican. The major parties have apparently faded into each other. Marlin sees Giuliani’s candidacy as a betrayal of the Republican Party, as a sign of its almost deliberate suicide. In one of his most oft-quoted quips, Marlin remarked that the only difference between the Republican and the Democratic candidates is the way they part their hair. The people of New York City have no fundamental choice without the Marlin Factor from outside the major parties, calling each back to a sanity it ought never to have questioned.

The reason why Marlin entered this campaign is, then, because the defeat of George Bush is in danger of coming to mean that the Republican Party might decide that to win, it can do nothing else but imitate the Democrats. Giuliani, in Marlin’s eyes, does not look like a Republican with principles, but like a Democrat with none. This imitation mentality is what kept the Republican Party so long in bondage, something from which the Reagan presidency alone gave it a chance to escape.

The election of Giuliani would suggest to the national Republican Party that it need not stand for basic principles and issues of morality and economics but only for those of a pragmatic “what works?” outlook that invariably turns into left-leaning ideology. Marlin sees his task in part as preventing this conclusion by suggesting to the New York electorate that it is time to question the whole system on which both parties have been working. This is the stuff politics are made of. Without Marlin in the race, no substantive argument will be made at all.

That George Marlin enjoys the candidacy, there is no doubt. He genuinely relishes the fray. Marlin’s campaign pamphlet, to illustrate both his humor and his thought, has two philosophical slogans: (1) “Tired of Voting for the Lesser of Two Evils?” (2) “Don’t Waste Your Vote on the Lesser of Two Liberals.” George Marlin, I think, would run the whole campaign just for the pleasure of getting such quips off. But the fact is that they come pretty close to describing the real issue and are meant quite seriously.

Marlin has a list of issues on which Giuliani and Dinkins basically agree: (1) increasing of taxes, (2) opposing tuition tax credits and vouchers, (3) Riker Island inmates to be given the vote, (4) public distribution of condoms to children, (5) funding for abortion, and (6) special preference for gays and lesbians. Marlin disagrees with the other two candidates about these issues. These topics are not merely minor policy issues but those that come pretty close to defining civilization it-self — or the lack of it.

Can Marlin win and strike fear into national political parties? In a three-way race, anything can happen. You do not need fifty percent to win. Marlin is a better debater than either Giuliani or Dinkins. Dinkins has been a weak and disorganized mayor. Giuliani keeps changing his views to accommodate himself to what he perceives as popular opinion. Both large organized parties will oppose Marlin, as well as most unions and most of the media, though Marlin has so far had a surprisingly good press.

This country is rapidly learning that the election of a Clinton has only made the failed liberal/socialist agendas reappear in a virulent new form. The two parties and the structures of the political system, all three branches of government, are themselves now part of the problem. The general populace is beginning to suspect this.

I usually do not like third-party situations. I continue to think the Perot candidacy was a disaster to our system by confusing the electorate. Yet if George Marlin gets from three to ten percent of the vote, he will have done very well by any standards; he will have made a significant difference.

George Marlin is quotable, engaging, quick. He is very tall, well-spoken. He wrote a book on the municipal bond market, is on leave from U.S. Trust, is the son of a New York cop. He was born in Brooklyn, grew up in Queens, went to Iona College in nearby New Rochelle. In his Preface to the More Quotable Chesterton, George Marlin wrote, with his cousin Richard Rabatin and his colleague Jack Swan: “Chesterton enjoyed life. His delight was to be with his be- loved common man, whether in a pub, a chophouse or an omnibus.” We can be sure that George Marlin saw these wonderful qualities of Chesterton in London because they were there. But he also saw them because he himself enjoyed the neighborhoods and knew the same common man, in the pubs, chophouses, and omnibuses of New York City.

Well, of course, I do not vote in New York. I think I would vote for him — provided, of course, I could choose the chophouse in which further to discuss with George Marlin the politics and lore of the New York City he loves so well.

James V. Schall

By

James Vincent Schall, S.J. is an American Jesuit Roman Catholic priest, teacher, writer, and philosopher. He was, most recently, Professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.

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