The Magazine

John Lindsay's New York

Liberalism has its consequences.

Aug 13, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 45 • By ALVIN S. FELZENBERG
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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."

With Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Senator Jacob K. Javits both poised to seek reelection and newly elected Democratic senator Robert Kennedy not having to face the voters until 1970, Lindsay concluded that the New York mayoralty would be his next stop on his way to the White House. The Herald Tribune, then the official mouthpiece of eastern Republicanism, paved his way with its series "New York City in Crisis," which attributed much of the city’s decline to the lethargic administration of the incumbent three-term mayor, Robert F. Wagner. Columnist Murray Kempton captured the hopes of Lindsay’s supporters when he wrote of the candidate, "He is fresh, and everyone else is tired."

Running on both the Republican and Liberal party tickets and mounting a campaign that practiced the politics of the Tammany sachems he so maligned, Lindsay eked out a victory with 43 percent of the vote. The race attracted enhanced attention by the presence of National Review editor William F. Buckley Jr., who articulated a vision for the national, state, and local Republican parties that was the direct opposite of Lindsay’s. Most of the debates cast the two registered Republicans against each other, with the Democrat (and eventual mayor) Abe Beame trying to elbow his way in. Buckley’s plan for American cities and the Republican party, explained in the book he wrote about his candidacy, The Unmaking of a Mayor, prove in retrospect far more prophetic than Lindsay’s. But perhaps New York had to hit bottom before Buckley’s conservative pronouncements could be appreciated.

Narrowly losing the Republican primary in 1969, Lindsay won reelection as a Liberal and Independent with 41 percent of the vote—campaigning under a motto that lowered rather than raised expectations. Lindsay’s "It’s the Second Toughest Job in America" perpetuated the myth, now disproved by Rudolph Giuliani, that New York is ungovernable. After his reelection, Lindsay moved steadily to the left. Upping his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War, he conferred with Chicago Seven radical Tom Hayden about his dovish stand. He became a Democrat, ran a disastrous campaign for the party’s 1972 presidential nomination, and returned to New York, his city and his political career in tatters.

The dissonance between Lindsay’s high rhetoric and his disappointing actions became apparent quickly. Beset with a strike that shut down the city’s buses and subways on his first day in office, Lindsay vowed not to yield to demands of "power brokers" who sought to "dictate terms" to the city. He followed his Churchillian rhetoric with a dramatic "walk to work," designed to rally public support. And then, just as it all was having an effect, Lindsay and his inexperienced negotiators agreed to terms that exceeded the union’s wildest expectations. His capitulation enticed all other municipal unions to up their demands.

Lindsay showed his political skill by succeeding in the difficult task of establishing the city’s first income tax. But he demonstrated his political naiveté at the same time when he threatened to campaign against suburban legislators who balked at passing a commuter tax. (One volunteered to pay the mayor’s expenses to his district.) Lindsay encountered his greatest heartache whenever he allowed the politics of symbolism to determine his actions. He did so rather often. It was this propensity that led Richard Nixon to call Lindsay a man perpetually "pregnant with trouble."

Crime offers perhaps the best example. As Cannato tells it, by the time Lindsay left office, the police saw themselves more as bystanders than crime preventers. He argues that they stopped looking for crime—in order to avoid accusations of police brutality or corruption. By his words and some of his deeds, the mayor reinforced suspicions that he was not concerned about the police. He spoke constantly about the "root causes" of crime, he tolerated disorder by student demonstrators, and he was willing to put constituencies he was courting ahead of police safety. (When a police officer was struck down in a mosque after answering an emergency call, Lindsay appeared more concerned that the officer had violated a city pledge that police would not enter Muslim sites without permission than he was with bringing his killers to justice.)

Lindsay’s relations with the police deteriorated particularly when he imposed a civilian review board to investigate complaints of police brutality. Lindsay’s tendency to view policy disputes in moral terms and to castigate the motives of his adversaries did little to enhance his standing with those who opposed his initiatives.

In The Ungovernable City, Cannato insists that the review-board controversies about police brutality and corruption—of the kind immortalized in Hollywood extravaganzas like Serpico and The French Connection—were media "sideshows" that diverted Lindsay’s attention from the fight against crime. He has a point, but Lindsay wasn’t entirely wrong to insist a public that loses faith in the integrity of its police is less likely to obey its edicts.

Still, the effect of it all was an increased tolerance for crime. A Lindsay aide, speaking of riot prevention, once declared, "It’s better to have a few broken windows than to have this place burn down." That makes a nice apposition to the "broken-windows" theory with which Rudy Giuliani and his first police commissioner, William Bratton, later massively reduced the crime rate in New York—succeeding where Lindsay had failed by insisting upon "zero tolerance" for crime.

Education offers another field in which to evaluate Lindsay. New York’s decentralization of its public education and the teachers’ strikes that resulted from its brief experiment with "community control" polarized the city in ways that can still be felt. The media presented it at the time as a conflict between a predominantly Jewish teachers’ union and black parents who sought a say over what their children were learning. But, in fact, the symbolism that engulfed Lindsay—and his city—obscured the reality.

Ocean Hill-Brownsville, one of the city’s worst slums, harbored some of its worst schools. Black militants assumed control of the school system as a means of imposing their separatist beliefs. When they dismissed teachers and administrators, United Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker three times called a city-wide walkout under the pretext of "due process."

Like the radical school administrator Rhody McCoy, Shanker had goals extending well beyond Ocean Hill- Brownsville. Strikes were his means of enhancing collective bargaining, increasing the influence of teachers’ unions within the labor movement, and extracting generous contract settlements. Lindsay made clear where his sympathies lay: "The school battle showed us who we actually were....The parents were beginning to demand a place at the table."

The prolonged controversy produced some surprising alliances. Many conservatives, though they had been critical of labor unions during previous municipal strikes, rallied behind the teachers, whom they regarded as victims of black racism. Liberals, especially those who sent their children to private schools, expressed sympathy for the militants. Socialist activist Michael Harrington supported the union in order to enhance "worker solidarity." Some civil-rights leaders, though they had received past support from organized labor, took on the rhetoric of old-fashioned union busters. (In Sleeper, a futurist comedy made at the time, Woody Allen has a character who survived a nuclear war explain that it all began when a man named Albert Shanker obtained an atom bomb.)

Lost in the politics and the symbolism was the quality of the education children were receiving. Read today, some of the black activists’ complaints against union teachers as "time servers" and Lindsay’s criticisms of union officials as bullies would resonate well among conservatives. Most of the new recruits Shanker called "scabs" were idealistic college graduates. Some went to Ocean Hill-Brownsville because they wanted to help minority youngsters. Others sought to evade the draft. Many—today it would be most—came to their tasks better trained than the graduates of conventional education programs they were replacing. Today entire organizations and registries exist just to entice this kind of recruit into classrooms. Had Lindsay recognized all this at the time, he might have been able to transcend ethnic divisions and forge a coalition to raise education standards.

Of all Lindsay’s actions as mayor, none was more grounded in his basic philosophy than his attempt to increase welfare. Lindsay believed that the best way to combat poverty was through generous welfare payments. He thought it high civic purpose for the government to transfer wealth from the better off to the less fortunate. He successfully used his powers of persuasion to entice the state and federal governments to increase spending. When that proved insufficient to meet the city’s obligations, he began advocating a complete federal takeover of welfare and a national income-maintenance policy. Lindsay termed "workfare" programs (requiring welfare recipients to perform community service) a reversion to the "dark ages" and "unmodern" in thinking. Well into his later years, he continued to insist that the primary way to end poverty was increased spending. "Where there is money there is hope," he maintained.

Lindsay’s liberal defenders dismiss as little more than racism the charges that he "gave away the city" during his tenure. To be sure, many New Yorkers, especially in the outer boroughs, felt Lindsay was unconcerned about them. Those sentiments erupted into anger when he toured snowbound parts of Queens after city plows failed to appear days after a storm.

While the snow-removal fiasco may have been the product of incompetence or sabotage by recently striking sanitation workers, the deterioration of the city’s parks and open spaces during his tenure was the result of a deliberate anti-middle-class attitude at city hall. Lindsay’s parks commissioner, August Heckscher, expressed pride that the city could "boast the most flamboyant street gangs, the most brazen graffiti, and the most sophisticated pimps of any large city." Heckscher declared that he considered vandals as much a part of his constituency as other New Yorkers. "Some of what went for malicious destruction could be seen as an attempt...to rectify an error in design or conception," he observed.

The one time Lindsay took a stand against his own administration, he proved powerless to act. He termed "insecure cowards" what others were calling "subway artists," and he insisted that the "life would go out of everyone when they saw the cars defaced" by the graffiti that had suddenly begun to plague New York. Yet at his insistence, the state government assumed control of the subways, and Rockefeller appointees were hesitant to accommodate a mayor who had repeatedly accused their boss of "shortchanging" New York City.

Lindsay and his defenders maintain that his greatest achievement as mayor was preventing in New York an outbreak of the kind of racial disturbances and riots that occurred in Watts, Newark, Detroit, Washington, and elsewhere. Well into his retirement, he insisted that had he taken a tougher stand toward demonstrators and looters, or had his police shown less restraint, the city workers "would still be picking up broken glass."

Cannato believes Lindsay partisans have overstated his success. He points out that several "mini riots" did break out on Lindsay’s watch and maintains that Lindsay paid too high a price for this uneasy peace by putting people with criminal records on city payrolls, retaining a known mobster to patrol certain white neighborhoods, and giving city funds to "safety valve" operations like Abbie Hoffman’s Yippie parties. But Lindsay may have been on to something. His Los Angeles counterpart, Sam Yorty, took a much firmer stance toward minority unrest. His policies not only contributed to the Watts disturbances of the 1960s, but had effects decades later in the responses to the Rodney King beating and the O.J. Simpson verdict.

Lindsay’s concern for civil rights was genuine. As a congressman, he favored the legislation of Kennedy and Johnson. Together with other Republican liberals, he backed speaker Sam Rayburn’s attempts to pack the House Rules Committee so its segregationist chairman could no longer bottle up bills. Minority voters rewarded Lindsay for his efforts at the polls. He received 40 percent of the black vote the first time he ran for mayor, and 85 percent when he sought reelection.

As mayor, Lindsay made frequent walking tours through the city, including Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. For many of these neighborhoods, Lindsay was the only figure of authority ever to drop by. Protected by "community activists" his assistants had befriended (in ways Cannato disapproves), Lindsay toured minority areas in the early morning hours after Martin Luther King’s assassination. During prison disturbances, some of which included the taking of hostages, the mayor risked his own safety when he went into correctional facilities to negotiate with inmates.

Sadly, Lindsay’s views about the causes of racial unrest are exactly what prevented him from doing more to improve conditions for his minority constituents. As vice chairman of the Kerner Commission—the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—he pressed for language that placed the blame for the 1967 riots on institutional racism. He was also the leading force behind the report’s most often cited sentence, "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal." Anyone who believed that poor people in general and African Americans in particular are shaped exclusively by impersonal socio-economic forces could not be expected to make the case for self-help, personal responsibility, and community renewal. Lindsay rarely did. He attributed black difficulties to white indifference, and until his death on December 19, 2000, he continued to recommend income redistribution and higher welfare spending as the only solution.

It is intriguing to speculate how Lindsay might have improved the lot of the minorities about whom he cared so much had he preached what later became Republican gospel. Could the John V. Lindsay who palled around with inner-city teens on street corners have made the case for their remaining in school, holding a job, taking responsibility for their children, or staying off drugs? He said some of that, to be sure, but never in a sustained way.

In the end, the promise Lindsay offered New York and cities around the nation went largely unfilled. He failed not because he was a poor politician—though he was; and not because he was a poor administrator and an inept labor negotiator—though those, too, describe him; and not because he was self-righteous—which he certainly sounded; and not because as a WASP he lacked a solid ethnic base—which is also true. Nor were his failings, like Bill Clinton’s and Richard Nixon’s, rooted in a faulty character. Unlike so many who followed him, he never cashed in on his years of public service. Lindsay took no huge book advances or exorbitant lecture fees, and hawked no commercial products.

The failure of John Lindsay came, simply and solely, from his steadfast belief in the wrong things at the wrong time. He pursued those wrong things with such sincerity, persistence, and courage that he forced them all the way down to their logical—and disastrous—conclusion.

Alvin S. Felzenberg is a presidential scholar at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.