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A quarterly magazine of urban affairs, published by the Manhattan Institute, edited by Brian C. Anderson.

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Hope’s Last Hurrah
John Lindsay’s 1969 reelection triumph, a political version of the Miracle Mets
2 November 2009

Last month, I came across an old file folder labeled “JVL Miracle.” Inside were news clips and notes on Mayor John V. Lindsay’s 1969 reelection campaign, which remains one of the most remarkable triumphs of hope over experience—with some help from luck and baseball—in the history of American politics.

At the beginning of that improbable year, pundits and prognosticators gave Lindsay little chance to win a second term. Most New Yorkers—including me—seemed angry at Lindsay personally. “A broad segment of the electorate felt a special ill will toward me,” the mayor later acknowledged. “Indeed, it seemed I had managed to unite a wide variety of New Yorkers in a common cause: my retirement.” The apparent icing on Lindsay’s retirement cake arrived in February 1969, when New York was hit by a surprise blizzard. Forty-two people died and thousands were marooned at John F. Kennedy International Airport. For a week, snowdrifts clogged the streets of Queens. When Lindsay toured the snowbound neighborhoods, he was booed out of the borough.

Lindsay wondered if the city’s snowplows had been sabotaged. If so, there were plenty of suspects. In 1968 alone—the year Lindsay called “the worst of my political life”—the handsome young mayor had made enough enemies to populate a dozen whodunits. In 12 tumultuous months, Lindsay’s city was hammered by a garbage strike, a fuel strike, police and fire department slowdowns, antiwar marches, radical demonstrations, hippie high jinks, a confrontational school strike that inflamed racial tensions, student takeovers at Columbia, and, for good measure, an outbreak of Hong Kong flu. Topping the list of troubles was skyrocketing crime—up 32 percent over 1967. By some estimates, half the heroin addicts in America were on New York’s streets, many of them mugging for drug money. Violent crime swept across the city like a homegrown Tet offensive. The new 911 emergency number received 18,000 calls a day.

Lindsay’s annus horribilis didn’t end with the February 1969 blizzard. It culminated in June with the mayor’s humiliating loss in the Republican primary to John Marchi, a little-known state senator from Staten Island. Polls showed Mario Procacinno, the Democratic candidate, leading by 12 points. For Lindsay to have any chance of winning in November as a Liberal-Independent, the rest of 1969 would have to go precisely right.

It did. Losing the Republican primary turned out to be a blessing. Marchi and Procacinno, both conservatives, split the anti-Lindsay vote. In a summer of peace, love, Woodstock, and the moon landing, Marchi’s promise to “unleash the police” fell flat. Procacinno, who scorned Lindsay as a “limousine liberal,” ran a clumsy campaign, assuring African-American voters: “My heart is as black as yours.” Lindsay began to climb in the polls. Sinatra, Streisand, and Belafonte threw a big fund-raiser for him at the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden. Then, on October 16, came the miracle that Michael Bloomberg must have dreamed about last night: a hometown team won the World Series. The New York Mets—once the very image of bumbling incompetence—beat the Baltimore Orioles in five games. Front-page photos showed joyous Mets pouring champagne on Lindsay’s head. Thus anointed, he won reelection with 42 percent of the vote.

Tucked away in my Lindsay file was one of the most interesting relics of 1969, a paperback copy of his book The City. Part campaign biography, part apologia for urban America, The City today seems like a rusty time capsule, filled with inspiring dreams and obsolete ideas. Lindsay traces “the root of the city’s ills” to “a single starting point: we Americans don’t like our cities very much.” He makes his case with anti-urban lines from Jefferson, de Tocqueville, and a settler in 1815 Ohio, and for good measure throws in Moll Flanders, the Northwest Ordinance, and an 1849 quotation from The Prairie Farmer. But New York City’s “ultimate problem,” Lindsay wrote, was “not enough money. Whatever else a city can do, it cannot provide the services its people want if it doesn’t have the money to pay for them. . . . My own city’s expenses—with no increase at all in programs—goes up each year three times as much as revenues. That does not make for tranquility.”

I remember 1969; the lack of tranquility on the streets of my Lower East Side neighborhood was not caused by a shortage of cash. My wife stopped at a social-services agency on Avenue B to ask a question and came home with a $200 “business loan” that the agency had urged her to accept. There were many such agencies in the neighborhood as the economy boomed and welfare entered its golden age. Money was everywhere. Because Lindsay considered the Lower East Side a potential flashpoint for riots, and because he passionately believed that the felony rate could not be reduced unless “the complex pressures and forces that drive men to crime” were dealt with first, the city kept the money flowing and worked hard to deliver services. Our block had nine garbage collections a week. Every morning at 8 AM the streets were broom-clean.

By noon they were dirty again, and therein lay Lindsay’s dilemma. No matter how fervently he blamed fiscal problems on city-hating hicks, no matter how cleverly he juggled the budget, no matter how much new tax revenue he raised, no matter how much he saved by reforming municipal agencies, New York was failing at an elemental level that money couldn’t fix. Incurably dirty streets were a minor annoyance compared with crime. By 1969, muggers were no longer demanding your money or your life; they were taking both. That year, for the first time, murders topped 1,000. Twenty-eight years would pass before homicides in the city dropped below 1,000 again.

Nevertheless, in the summer and fall of 1969, worries about tomorrow turned into cheers for the Mets. I was angry at Mayor Lindsay for reasons I no longer recall. I’m angry at him still. But John V. Lindsay seemed to be the only choice. It was hope’s last hurrah. In the year of the moon, the Mets, and Lindsay’s miraculous comeback, the miracle I remember most is that I voted for him.

Clark Whelton served as a speechwriter for New York City mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani.

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