The Magazine

John Lindsay's New York

Liberalism has its consequences.

Aug 13, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 45 • By ALVIN S. FELZENBERG
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WHAT DAVID HALBERSTAM DID IN THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST to explain the formation and failure of America’s intervention in Vietnam, Vincent J. Cannato has now done in The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York for the domestic equivalent, the response to the "urban crisis" of the 1960s and 1970s.

Those were the years in which New York descended—in its own perception as well as in that of the rest of the nation—from the elegant city depicted in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the safe and whimsical city of Barefoot in the Park, to the coarse, atomized, and dangerous place of Midnight Cowboy. And the central figure in it all was John V. Lindsay, the 103rd mayor of New York City, who served from 1966 through 1974.

To read Cannato’s The Ungovernable City is to remember all the craziness of those years. Back again in memory are the transit, teachers’, and sanitation strikes. Making a return are the Kerner and Knapp commissions, black militants, urban ethnics, antiwar protesters, the hard-hat counter-demonstrators, uncollected trash, unsafe streets, graffiti-marred subways, and 42nd Street massage parlors. In supporting roles are all the characters whose common bond lay in the delight they derived from adding to the beleaguered young mayor’s woes: Governor Nelson Rockefeller, union bosses Michael Quill, Albert Shanker, and John DeLury, former mayor Robert Wagner, columnist William F. Buckley Jr., master builder Robert Moses, President Richard Nixon, and police officers Frank Serpico and David Durk.

The reform mayor John Vliet Lindsay burst on the stage in 1965, determined to slay whatever dragons were plaguing New York. He departed eight years later, a symbol of unfulfilled promise. At the time of his first election, Lindsay seemed the perfect model for mayors across the country, who parroted his rhetoric, shirt-sleeves campaigning, and "walking tours." Today, the nation’s mayors look to Lindsay mostly for reminders of what to avoid. Cannato’s book is in part the story of how this came to be: the trials, tribulations, partial successes, and unfulfilled hopes of a famous mayor. But The Ungovernable City is, even more, a vivid portrait of the demise of late-twentieth-century liberalism, in all its obsessions.

The qualities Lindsay possessed that made him command such promise—his good looks, his superior education (St. Paul’s, Yale, Yale Law School), his ability to lure bright young aides into city government, his capacity to make news in the media capital of the nation, his earnestness and sincerity—enabled him to fail on a grander scale. He used his skills to make New York City a showcase for the latest liberal fads. Academics, eager to push their social theories on the nation, came to regard New York as their special laboratory. In its mayor, they found a ready and willing advocate.

A man with less ambition for his city and himself, with weaker skills and smaller vision, might not have been able to raise taxes as high, increase welfare as much, launch as many programs, enact experiments as bold, extract as much aid from the state and federal governments, or do as much damage as Lindsay.

Born into an upper-middle-class but far from wealthy family, Lindsay attributed his interest in public affairs to his service as a naval officer in World War II. He quickly caught the attention of the pillars of the eastern establishment, then the dominant force within the Republican party. One of them, Herbert Brownell, Thomas Dewey’s former campaign manager and Dwight Eisenhower’s attorney general, brought his young protégé to Washington as his executive assistant.

With Brownell’s help, Lindsay defeated a more conservative Republican for the GOP congressional nomination in Manhattan’s Silk Stocking District in 1958. He won four straight elections by substantial margins, culminating with his 1964 reelection, in which he received 71 percent of the vote, running on the slogan, "The District’s Pride, the Nation’s Hope." Pundits saw a special significance in that moniker. It signaled that the dashing forty-one-year-old harbored national ambitions. Equally, it suggested his particular brand of Republicanism—pro-civil rights, pro-civil liberties, pro-government intervention in the economy—was on the rise after Barry Goldwater’s loss of the 1964 presidential election by what was then the largest margin in history. Some saw in Lindsay’s refusal to endorse his party’s standard-bearer that year signs of both independence and "prescience."