Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
The Spectacle of Eric Adams
On Monday, I went to Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn to see Eric Adams, the new mayor, where he was holding a press conference to discuss a healthy eating initiative. There was the promise of Q&A with off-topic questions. But I knew, once I arrived, my opportunity to ask about anything else besides food—particularly pertaining to rent laws—would be limited.
The reporters had crowded into a room with limited seating and a few of us had to wait, awkwardly, in the hallway. Having covered, at this point, many hundreds of press conferences, I have—at best—mixed feelings about them. They are staged for the politician to have utter control and they are, by definition, artificial events, existing primarily for television. Reporters will ask very good questions and very useless questions, depending on the reporter and the day. I have certainly asked my share of useless questions. Or, I’ve made the mistake—a mistake reporters still make, all these years later—of attaching a throat-clearing preamble to my question, larding it with information to either demonstrate my own alleged expertise or, perhaps, to hedge in some way. The lengthy question will fail because any politician who has been around long enough understands you never have to answer it fully. You pick out a fragment, your fragment, and move on. You filibuster effectively. Maybe the reporter stammers for a follow up but it’s too late.
Has Adams had a good or bad first month as mayor? It depends on your metric. Adams has been embroiled in a mix of perplexing scandals. He badly wanted to pay his own brother more than $200,000 to oversee his police security, inevitably failing to win approval from the Conflicts of Interest Board. He hired a deputy mayor for public safety—someone who may actually call the shots at the NYPD—who was an unindicted co-conspirator in a corruption scandal. He tried to hire an actual bigot to oversee a mental health initiative. He has extolled the virtue of his plant-based, vegan-like diet—so central to his identity—while apparently dining out, fairly often, on fish. I am most sympathetic to Adams here, in that it’s mostly a non-story and he is an adult in excellent physical condition who can eat what he wants. The scandal has only persisted because he long refused to say, outright, he’s eaten fish. Fishgate, or whatever you want to call it, dominated the Monday event at the hospital.
Adams, though, has not had what you would call a bad month as mayor if your metric is performance. He understands, innately, the aesthetic demands of the office, that the media and certain voters want something of an urban caretaker or superhero, a man to watch over them and promise better days. He rushes to the scenes of fires and murders and has made containing crime, something largely beyond his power, a top priority—sometimes, it seems it’s the only priority—of his administration. It’s inarguable that the rise in shootings and murders—national in scope—is a pressing concern and Adams is correct that his working-class base cares about the issue greatly. Progressives sometimes make the mistake of being too blithe about murder.
What this all will add up to remains to be seen. Already clear, though, is that Adams evinces energy not seen in the last mayor and it’s something that will take him far with the media and even public. He loves a good spectacle. On Monday, to promote an expansion of a chronic disease management program that focuses on diet, exercise and other lifestyle factors rather than medication, Adams led a cooking demonstration, making a plant-based chili. He sliced and diced with a knife (“my father was a butcher”) and peppered the assembled reporters with all kinds of observations and quips, including that cops really love doughnuts and that, before he lost weight, his favorite McDonald’s meal was a Big Mac, Chicken McNuggets, and two apple pies. Reporters lobbed questions about his culinary skills—cooking without oil?—and general diet. Adams, who has claimed healthy eating cured him of diabetic-inducted blindness, said that food is like a drug and claimed people would not be able to tell the difference between “someone hooked on heroin” and “someone hooked on cheese.”
On Twitter, Adams came in for much ridicule, but it was the new mayor who got the last laugh. A press event had passed with relatively few questions of substance. There has been plenty of tough reporting on Adams thus far—Politico just ran an excellent piece on his disturbing interest in expanding facial recognition technology—and it’s important to keep in mind, while making criticisms of the press, that it is no monolith. Yet it’s becoming apparent Adams will be able to persist, and probably keep his approval numbers in viable territory, by embracing spectacle. From the perspective of the Adams team, these highly orchestrated press conferences are win-wins, creating fewer opportunities for scrutiny while appeasing reporters who spent eight years bemoaning how little Bill de Blasio seemed to relish being mayor.
One of the few questions of note came when a reporter asked Adams how he viewed the controversial and well-intentioned attempts by Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor, to improve the public health of the city, like banning indoor smoking and trying to limit the size of sugary drinks.
Adams, sounding like Bloomberg’s critics, said he would not be a “nanny mayor” and expounded instead on how he wished his doctor gave him better health advice. For Adams, altering the eating habits of his city—a noble goal—will be a mix of policy change, like vegan food in schools, education campaigns, and a quasi-libertarian insistence on personal responsibility. If I can do it, you can too. Never mind the lifestyle advantages Adams has had as an elected official, with a sizable income and comprehensive health insurance.
I was complicit on Monday in the sense that I did not push back against the off-topic, on-topic divide, standing silent as Adams sliced up his chili. There was almost no value-add, from a media and democracy standpoint, to journalists happily watching the mayor of New York cook. Policy questions were almost entirely absent.
In an alternate world, the reporters present would have taken it upon themselves to ask about the city Adams is running, not just his views on cooking oil. It shouldn’t be solely up to a state assemblyman to ask, for example, about the Rent Guidelines Board and whether Adams will seek significant rent hikes during the pandemic. Despite the control Adams exerts here over the financial reality of more than a million people, it’s a topic that has never interested the media very much. Adams can be the mayor of Big Real Estate as long as he’s having a good time. And he can exploit his identity to pivot from thornier topics. If he can talk of little but cooking and fighting crime, he will have governed on his terms.