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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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.