A sober, if small, voice amid the trumpeting herd
Some years back, one of his harassed employees said of publicity-hungry Rudy
Giuliani, then mayor of the
Big Apple: “The most dangerous place to stand in New York City is between Rudy and a microphone.”
This week I discovered that the most dangerous place to stand in New York is basically anywhere on the street when world leaders, hangers-on, extended families and media multitudes descend on Manhattan for the four-day talk fest that is the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly.
The sheer pressure of diverted traffic shunted aside for an extraordinary 189 motorcades recorded on Monday pushes everyone onto the streets and causes pedestrians to curse far more than even the typical New Yorker would because half the sidewalks are barricaded anyway.
I had the additional misfortune of staying in a hotel just across from Donald Trump’s local residence in Trump Tower. Just to add to the vehicular and pedestrian mayhem, the cross-street, 5th Avenue, went into lockdown every time the US president entered or left his penthouse.
Both sides of the Trump Tower block and the area around the hotel were barricaded with “dump trucks” that, according to the New York Times, each weigh 16t and are filled with sand, adding another 16t. If I hadn’t seen this obstacle course with my own eyes I might not have believed it, since the most famous and eponymous resident of Trump Tower describes the newspaper in question as “failing and full of false news”.
And then the heavens opened, so, already forced into the streets, blockaded from entering one’s hotel or desperately late after navigating these obstacles, one arrived at meetings with the sartorial elegance of a drowned rat.
Meantime, across town on the East River in the somewhat crumbling UN Building, the object of this intense security lockdown was in full trumpet. If others judge their audiences and adjust script to suit occasion, Trump sounded off as though speaking at one of his raucous rallies in Ohio.
He addressed world leaders, ambassadors and assorted others in tones made famous by his Make America Great
Again permanent campaign.
But when he said that he had accomplished more than any other president at this point in office, he received not a roar of approval, but laughter and tittering. For one so fixated on affirmation, this was jarring.
“I did not expect that reaction, but that’s OK,” said the most powerful leader in the world, sounding miffed.
Venezuela, Iran, Opec and
Chinese trade practices are the current targets of presidential ire, but his attention span lacks the Chinese long-game view, so the subjects will likely change soon enough.
But precisely because of the magnetism of Trump, whose every tweet dominates the news cycle, his annual appearance at the UN is going to suck the oxygen out for pretty much everyone else, bar the perennial troublemakers on the world stage or its festering problem areas. Unless, of course, you are the prime minister of New Zealand and have just had a baby.
Thus Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech — worthy but dull — was never going to break through and indeed few might have heard of it, outside of the UN bubble or the South African media.
But I did brave the barricades and bad traffic to hear him speak at a business forum on Wednesday at a midtown hotel. He said nothing new or particularly newsworthy, but delivered his remarks with the measured reassurance of a trusted GP.
One veteran observer of US-SA relations in the room said to me: “There’s a sort of collective sigh of relief here that he is here, not Jacob Zuma.”
Virtue and decency don’t necessarily win investment. Tax cuts and high skills tend to do that. Nonetheless, as a friend of mine, globalisation pundit Jamie Metzl, said while watching events in New York this week: “Given the pyrotechnics on display from Trump Tower and the hot spots elsewhere in the world, boring these days seems better.”
‘There’s a collective sigh of relief that Ramaphosa is here, not Jacob Zuma’
Leon is a former leader of the opposition and former ambassador to Argentina