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Posted at 11:21 AM ET, 12/28/2010

Blizzards and political fortunes

By E.J. Dionne

It was not hype. Everything you heard about the severity of the Great Blizzard that hit New York and New Jersey is true. The response to big storms of this sort by governors and mayors can break (and, occasionally make) political careers. We'll see if this one has that sort of impact.

First, the storm itself: On Sunday night, driving from a Manhattan birthday party into Queens, my family and I had a harrowing ride up the Belt Parkway and across the Gil Hodges Bridge, buffeted by 30-mile-an-hour gusts and snow falling at the rate of a couple of inches an hour. (Kudos to my wife, Mary Boyle, for getting us home safely.) By morning, drifting snow half covered the windows at the side of the house, and nothing was moving on the streets. It was quite beautiful when the sun broke through, but it was a dangerous sort of beauty if you were thinking of driving.

Which we were. We headed back to Washington shortly before 1:00 p.m., and the Rockaway side streets were an abominable mess. We got stuck behind stranded cars five times on the way out. Once we got on the highway, though, all was clear: The Verrazano Bridge was amazingly quick, and the crews that worked Staten Island and the Jersey Turnpike have our gratitude.

I offer our little personal travelogue to underscore the obvious: In the middle of something like this, big philosophical debates about government don't mean much. You just want government to do its job getting the streets and highways clear, the transit running, and emergency services responding quickly.

There are a number of classic cases of politicians not getting it done and suffering accordingly.

Perhaps most famously, the late John V. Lindsay, who had been elected as a charismatic and reforming mayor of New York City in 1965, became a public enemy in Queens after the blizzard of Feb. 1969, when the city found itself near paralysis for three days. As Sewall Chan noted in an excellent recounting of Lindsay's experience in The New York Times, "The city's environmental protection administrator was upstate and unreachable, and nearly 40 percent of the city's snow removal equipment was defective because of poor maintenance, both factors that hampered the city's response." The outer-boroughs (i.e., the non-Manhattan majority of the city) felt abandoned, a sentiment especially strong in middle-class Queens, which, as Chan noted, "was relegated to the status of a neglected stepchild. For days, the streets were impassable, and residents were all but barricaded inside their homes."

Lindsay survived to win the next election, largely because conservative opponents split, but also because he ran one of the great apology ads in American history. Vincent Cannato recounts the ad in his highly critical biography of Lindsay, "The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York." Cannato wrote: "The ad featured a relaxed Lindsay standing on the porch of Gracie Mansion, dressed in shirt sleeves with the top button open. The mayor looked earnestly into the camera and told voters: 'I guessed wrong on the weather before the city's biggest snowfall last winter. And that was a mistake. But I put 6,000 more cops on the streets. And that was no mistake. The school strike went on too long and we all made some mistakes. But I brought 225,000 more jobs to this town. And that was no mistake... And we did not have a Detroit, a Watts or Newark. And those were no mistakes. The things that go wrong are what make this the second toughest job in America. But the things that go right are those things that make me want it."' (Click here to see the ad -- it's the second one on this reel of David Garth commercials put together by The Times' Sam Roberts.)

Then there was the storm that made Jane Byrne the mayor of Chicago. This account, courtesy of Northern Illinois University, explains why snow and ice ended the political career of Chicago mayor Michael Bilandic:

Without minimizing the strengths of Byrne as a candidate or the brilliant campaign she ran in the weeks preceding the Feb. 27 primary, Bilandic would still be mayor of Chicago if the city had not suffered an onslaught of ice, snow and bitter cold during January that was without precedent. The snow covered the city, and the divisive race issue was buried along with everything else.

The "city that works" stopped working and as snow-clogged streets remained impassable and uncollected garbage piled up in alleys, Bilandic seemed unable to cope with the problem. Byrne's television commercials, in which the grim-faced challenger huddled in heavy winter clothes against a background of snow, spoke to the frustration of Chicagoans with the terrible winter.

And so what of this year's storm? The early reviews of Mayor Bloomberg's performance were mixed. This morning's account in the New York Post was especially tough -- and the New York tabloids are usually the best places to look for responses to events of this sort. Under the headline, "Fury as city is paralyzed by blizzard," the Post wrote:

New Yorkers endured a crippled transit system, completely overwhelmed emergency responders and unpassable roadways yesterday after one of the city's worst blizzards ever dumped a staggering 20 inches of snow.

Abandoned vehicles and buses littered highways and main drags -- and ambulances couldn't make it out to calls that stacked up well past 1,000 at one point. Virtually all modes of transportation -- from air travel to the subways -- left people stranded.

"A lot of snow everyplace. It was a very heavy snowfall, and, as you know, it was accompanied by intense winds," Mayor Bloomberg said.

Still, he tried to convince the public all was well, despite the city's $20 million snow-removal bill.

"This city is going on. It's a day like every other day," Bloomberg said, suggesting people go out and shop or take in a Broadway show. "There's no reason [for] everybody to panic."

Anyone who spent time outside would disagree.

Bloomberg has made his mark as a manager, and a good one, so it will be important to watch how he comes out of Day Two and Day Three of this.

In New Jersey, the interesting story is that Gov. Chris Christie and his lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, were both out of state. Worse, Christie's actual vacation location allowed Ben Smith of Politico to run his item under the headline: "Christie at Disney World." As Smith wrote: "Political lore holds that snow storms are iconic tests for executives, and one famously helped turn John Lindsay's mayoralty sour. So it is, at least, notable that Chris Christie didn't fly back from his Disney World vacation for this week's blizzard. He's thrived on the image of a take-charge executive; natural disasters are the sort of moment when an executive is supposed to take charge." Christie is now a big deal in national Republican politics, and the fact that Smith took notice of Christie's absence for his national audience of political junkies is significant.

The local coverage, so far as I can tell, is a bit more charitable because only some Democrats have jumped on Christie and because a lot of the attacks are hitting Guadagno for being out of state at the same time Chritie was. Here is part of Matt Friedman's account in the Newark Star-Ledger:

A Democratic lawmaker is questioning why both Gov. Chris Christie and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno are out of state at the same time, leaving Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) as the state's acting governor during a blizzard that paralyzed the state.

"We clearly made a mistake if we created the office lieutenant governor and wasted money if the lieutenant governor is not going to be here when the governor is out of state," said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union). "It's being handled very well by Sen. Sweeney, but you have to really question the purpose of the office."

Christie in on vacation with his family at Disney World in Florida, while Guadagno is with her family in Mexico, Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said. Sunday, hours after taking the oath to become acting governor, Sweeney declared a state of emergency.....

Sweeney, for his part, would not criticize the Republicans either.

"It's easy to criticize. I'm not going to do that. It happened. There was a scheduling conflict," said Sweeney, who noted he won't use any of his temporary executive powers to do anything Christie would not have done. "I am sure for the governor, this was not the ideal situation for him, me being a Democrat him being a Republican."

New Jersey seems to have done pretty well with the snow, and Sweeney has now lifted the state of emergency. Maybe this is the beginning of Stephen Sweeney's political rise. He's probably grateful that Christie is in Disney World.

By E.J. Dionne  | December 28, 2010; 11:21 AM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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This is not such a big deal. Blizzards happen. Power failures happen. Transit strikes shouldn't happen, but even they do.

As far as disasters that can happen to us here in New York go, this hardly qualifies. So there's really no need to wax philosophical over it.

Posted by: Itzajob | December 28, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

EJ Drivel resorts to writing about the weather. Certainly much safer than writing about politics. Am a bit puzzled, however, that Drivel is not blaming global cooling on George Bush. Drivel would normally equate European coolness to Bush as the explanation for global cooling. Perhaps he's saving Bush-bashing for 2011.

Posted by: g0tcha | December 28, 2010 1:19 PM | Report abuse

Can't Gov. Christie fly in with his ears?

Posted by: echoparkla | December 28, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Nah. You don't have to save up for Bush-bashing, monkey-boy walks into it all by himself.

Posted by: taroya | December 28, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

Conservatives were yelling during the oil spill -- until this problem is fixed, no more golf outings, no more baseball games, no more Beatle concerts, Mr. President. The stakes are too high for President Obama's lackadaisical approach to both his responsibilities and the challenges we are facing.
Did the liberals (I should just say socialists since all the blue dogs are dead) get up in arms about this? Of course a matter of fact, they defended his inept decisions.

Posted by: ssol4569 | December 28, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

No story here, move on. How lame!

Posted by: ohioan | December 28, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

No story here. I have yet to meet a "conservative" who says the government has no duty to clear snow from the streets. So if this is an argument for unlimited government, it's not working

Posted by: JS11 | December 28, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse


When people are trapped on a subway for 7 hours with no help? When fire and police are trapped for hours? When people can't make it to work and are fired?

Of course, Bloomberg did only have a LOUD, 4-day advance warning of the huge storm. (2 feet hardly counts as a "blizzard", people.)

WE WERE LIED TO. I live in the rich parts of manhattan and saw ZERO plows either salting or plowing, like prior years. During the storm, after the storm.

Bloomberg laid off 400 snowplow workers this past summer! (WHile giving record pay raises to his highest paid yes men.)

Even the snowplows and buses got trapped!

And not b/c of the snow, but b/c the mayor nickel-and-dimed them out of CHAINS ON THEIR WHEELS.

Considering the hundreds of millions in damages to the economy, he really should be prosecuted for this criminal negligence.

I can go on, disproving the rest of his lies if anyone wants. (EX: I rode my BICYCLE home on SUnday at 7pm. 5 inches of snow, unplowed. My BIKE went a mile in that but snowplows can't handle 20 inches? ALL LIES by the most corrupt pol in USA history.) (WHY do you think he had to outspend his opponents 700 - 1000% to "win" each election? Only his record payments to media have kept him out of jail this long!)

Posted by: christopher1 | December 28, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

BO has been on permanent vacation for the past two years and now he claims that he is going to focus on jobs. What the F$%K have the dems been doing in the meantime. How about foisting a hard core left wing agenda on the American people they didn't want The left and BO are mindless tools how about we let them eat cake again on November 2, 2012 and throw them out. So JS 11 what should we expect the government to do with our tax dollars plowing snow is what we pay them for moron not making our health care decisions for us.

Posted by: DCalle10411111 | December 28, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Christopher1, what New York do you live in?

This is hardly a scandal. And the snow plows have been keeping me up for two nights running. One just went by a few minutes ago. I can't imagine what it's still plowing; it should go finish clearing out the side streets in Queens.

Posted by: Itzajob | December 28, 2010 2:51 PM | Report abuse

christopher1 sez 2 feet ain't a lot of snow. Well, a real two feet is. Photos of NYC make it look as if Manhattan got just over a foot. Sometimes 2 feet can be crippling. The blizzard of '78 hit Boston, with an alleged 27 inches. On top of the record blizzard earlier that same week, that meant you could cross-country right over the tops of cars parked by the curbs. Thousands of cars were abandoned on the highways and had to be dug out with heavy equipment. Then-Gov Dukakis banned all private traffic for a week. It might have been the right move but he promptly lost the next election.
For me the notable thing is that, as in Frazer's Golden Bough, the ruler is still instinctively blamed for natural disasters and bad weather. This is a profound superstition, which the Republicans seem to be aware of--look how effectively they have managed to blame Obama for the economic crisis. They churn, they skim, they loot, then they pass of the bill to everyone else and blame the chump who volunteers to clean up the mess. A classic and, in fact, profound strategy.

Posted by: scientist1 | December 28, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

What a piece of whining drivel.
Dionne says:
"It was quite beautiful when the sun broke through, but it was a dangerous sort of beauty if you were thinking of driving.
Which we were. We headed back to Washington shortly before 1:00 p.m., and the Rockaway side streets were an abominable mess."

Hey E.J. For crying out
loud you had days of warning before the storm. STAY HOME for the day.
Lord it's infuriating when people lack the common sense to NOT drive on snowbound streets, complain about others who made the same mistake and got in their way and then have the unmitigated gall to blame their nanny for their unwise decisions. After REPEATED warnings.
Makes one wonder if people like E.J. Dionne blame the government when they burn their mouth with hot soup.
I told you it was hot, wait a little bit. Sad.

Posted by: spamsux1 | December 28, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

the Seattle Snowmageddon storm Christmas Week 2008 and the total inability of the city to respond to it was one of the very top factors that led to then-mayor Greg Nickels being shown the door in the next mayoral primary.

specifically, despite most roads being impassable for days and days (destroying the final shopping week for retailers that year), Nickels graded the city's response a "B," but perhaps that is because the city made sure to plow the roads in the mayor's neighborhood.

his successor's seeming inability to respond to the two or three inches we got this year at Thanksgiving will no doubt be a campaign issue the next time around as well...

Posted by: lestro | December 28, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

christopher1: sounds like a good idea to lay-off 400 Snow Plow people in the summer!
Bloomberg needs to go after those greedy unions and get them to permanently lay-off
all those teachers, RUBBER ROOMS,
who do Nothing for Years except sit in a Rubber room and STILL get paid full salary,
$95,000/yr., in addition to full benefits and pensions! This is A DISGRACE.
New York taxpayers are getting a Real snowjob, paying for this B.S.!!

Posted by: ohioan | December 28, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

Hmmmm ...

EJ, never ask anybody whose wine cellar you've been in for the last few days if the weather is good for travel. They are less accurate than Meteorologists, if that's possible.

Posted by: gannon_dick | December 28, 2010 5:01 PM | Report abuse

I am still trying to figure out what people in the North East or anywhere else would expect, during and after a major Blizzard.

Do they expect, the Mayor, the Governor, or whoever to just wave their magic wand's or something and all of the snow and freezing cold will magically disappear instantaneously.

Americans have become a people of instant gratification and whiners. They love depending on something or someone to make them feel all warm and fuzzy every freaking minute of the day.

It WAS a BLIZZARD people!

Get a FREAKIN" Clue people and if you can't handle the COLD, SNOW, and BLIZZARDS, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 feet of snow in the Northeast, during the Winter, than move down South somewhere and shut up.

Posted by: lcarter0311 | December 28, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

Check out my most recent blog post (called: "Hashtag for Help") on Mayor Cory Booker's incredible response to the snow storm via Twitter and how it predicts a very positive future for the use of social media by elected officials (and how other politicians should follow suit):

Posted by: smthompson | December 28, 2010 7:38 PM | Report abuse

This is exactly the extreme snowfall predicted by the global warming model so we need to get used to it and develop more effective ways to deal with it. Climatologists have been warning us but we did not get ready. How long before we quit denying and start planning for the predictable.

Posted by: withersb | December 29, 2010 7:38 AM | Report abuse

Traitor Dionne. Defending the Eagles and the evil Vick. Sir, have you no shame?
Go Giants!

Posted by: jrcerami | December 31, 2010 9:35 PM | Report abuse

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