08/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Some Country for Grumpy Old Men

It was during the presidential campaign that a distracted nation saw the rise of a new interest -- or, more precisely -- self-interest group. For a force which commanded so much attention, it was, rather oddly, unnamed, perhaps preferring it that way since the only name that comes to mind is "the grumpy old men" group. Its chief representatives during the campaign were former President Bill Clinton, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr., and former President Jimmy Carter. In startlingly short order, they suggested the group's manifesto by managing to draw major public attention for words and acts that seemed to contradict much that they had been thought to hold dear and that the public held dear about them.

Since this debut, the group has continued to spread its influence to an extent that requires our serious examination. It is, indeed, the little examined force which has now brought the entire government of New York State to a dead halt.

But let's begin at the beginning -- with the first presidential campaign in which one grumpy after another became the issue himself. As may be recalled, President Clinton, once revered in the black community, turned himself into a bad old boy by crabby and dismissive remarks about the first serious black presidential candidate. Reverend Wright, who would seem above all people in the United States to have supported by any means necessary, including discretion, not just a black presidential candidate, but one who was his parishioner, instead launched his own bumpy media tour, slashing away at the United States. Jimmy Carter, the man of peace, in the midst of a campaign which his own party regarded as a sacred mission to retrieve the country from warmongers, made a bizarre pilgrimage to Palestine whose only evident purpose was to create the expected public outrage that his laying a wreath on the grave of the very unpeaceful Yasser Arafat could be expected to create.

Well, well. Why did they all do such disconcerting things? Bill Clinton has partly explained that, in the wake of his two heart surgeries, he was often testy and tired during the campaign. Jeremiah Wright, at least the times I saw him on TV, appeared to be locked in that deer in the headlights look of being overwhelmed -- in this instance, the approaching media herd having taken the place of an approaching truck Carter, perhaps, was motivated simply by the warm glow -- which feels ever more glowing as we age -- of feeling that you are right and everybody else is wrong.

In any case, we should now be alert that we can only expect the grumpies to become a larger presence in our political landscape as the country ages. Whether it's senior moments or senior hubris, in a media saturated nation, the more off base the pronouncements of those who are both senior and prominent are, the more they are considered "good copy" and dominate what we call news. During a few weeks last spring, analysis shows, Reverend Wright dominated the news to the extent of being the focus of more stories than any presidential candidate or actual issue!

Already such is the grumpy influence that, if you are a billionaire grumpy, you can even get your grumpiness described as policy and turned into law. This is what happened in New York City where billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided the choice of the voters in not just one, but two public referendums to limit the Mayor and City Council to two terms was no longer his choice. Although he had previously called people -- mainly city council members -- who wanted to bypass this public law bad names, as the end of his own second term approached, he somehow cajoled the city council into overturning a law which he, himself, had previously declared could only be overturned by public referendum. (Whoops. Don't try that in Honduras!)

Even the newspaper editorial boards -- or, more precisely perhaps, their publishers -- applauded and said trammeling on a public vote was statesmanship. Strangely, however, as multiple commentators have noted, since then the Mayor has been noticeably more grumpy, scowling in public and snarling at reporters as he sets about campaigning for a third term. It's almost as if, in the switching perspective that is a hallmark of the grump group, he resents getting what he asked for. His explanation: " I am 67. I am who I am."

If grumpies have this level of influence now, even before the baby-boomers -- perhaps the most self-important and self-absorbed generation in American experience -- have reached the grump years in the millions they soon will, what will the future hold?

New York, perhaps, shows us. What New York now has is grumpy paralysis.

It turned out there was another billionaire, Tom Galisano, also 67, the founder of a big company called Paychex, who doesn't like elections. Although he bankrolled the Democrats in their successful quest to take over the New York State Senate in 2009, grump Galisano quickly decided he didn't like the result. So he enticed two Democrats -- Hiram Monserrate, now under indictment for slashing his girlfriend with a broken glass, and Pedro Espada, seemingly under investigation for everything by everybody -- to join the Republicans, giving them what's known as a slim majority. It was so slim that when Monserrate rejoined the Democrats days later, there were exactly 31 Republicans and 31 Democrats and the Senate ceased doing business.

Galisano claimed he acted to "reform" the senate, although when your chosen instruments are an indicted woman slasher and what looks to be a serial indictee, it's hard to credit that reform is your chosen mission. Reports have suggested that the "final straw" for Golisano, perhaps touchy after being soundly rejected by actual voters all three times he personally ran for Governor, occurred at a meeting when the new Democratic leader of the State Senate appeared to be paying more attention to his Blackberry than to him.

True, with New York's profound gerrymandering and inside setups, we don't have real state elections anyway, but, like the Iranians, we like to pretend. Now we don't even have a government. In this perpetual tie, the state senate can't act, leaving all legislation in limbo.

Ironically, that immediately quashed Mayor Bloomberg's other heart's desire -- legislation, seemingly about to pass the senate, that would have kept the New York City school system not just in the direct control of the Mayor, but controlled by him to a degree that occurs nowhere else in the United States. Even parents, the Mayor had candidly explained, had no business being involved in the schools and should leave all that to the experts.

So, instead of those petty semi-elected state legislators having turned out to be the ones to thwart him, it was the antics of another grumpy billionaire that blocked the Mayor's heart's desire. We can appreciate Mayor Bloomberg's pain.

A "mini-me" grump. Who'd a thunk!

Having had to endure all these public grumpy displays, we, the general public, might feel we deserve to sit back and enjoy the delicious irony of one billionaire grumpy canceling out another. But, alas, the truth is, what they've canceled out is public process; they've canceled out us.