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Winter 2014
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Books and Culture

Fred Siegel
John Lindsay’s Bright, Shining Failure
Reconsidering the career of New York’s matinee-idol mayor
10 June 2010

America’s Mayor: John V. Lindsay and the Reinvention of New York, ed. Sam Roberts (Columbia University Press, 256 pp., $49.95)

America’s Mayor: John V. Lindsay and the Reinvention of New York, Museum of the City of New York (through October 3)

Fun City Revisited: The Lindsay Years, WNET-TV

The brief afterglow of Barack Obama’s victorious presidential run has helped inspire a campaign to restore the lost luster of former New York mayor John Lindsay, who presided over the city from 1966 to 1973. An earlier incarnation of political “hope,” Lindsay, once a shining star in the liberal firmament, has been almost entirely forgotten outside New York. But the rise of Obama and the mayoralty of Michael Bloomberg, both of whom, like Lindsay, built their winning coalitions on an alliance of top and bottom, the wealthy and the dependent, opened the door for a Lindsay reconsideration. Last month it got under way with a new documentary, museum exhibit, and book. But what was conceived in starlight has arrived in the shadowy aftermath of Obama’s reckless spending and liberal overreach. Today, the failings of our first celebrity president look strikingly similar to those of New York’s matinee-idol mayor of a generation earlier.

The WNET documentary, Fun City Revisited, makes no pretense to objectivity. It’s a tribute, not so much to Lindsay’s mayoralty, as to the idea of his mayoralty. Its value lies almost exclusively in capturing the mind-set of those who pledged political fealty to the sense of self-righteousness that animated the Lindsay administration. The documentary unintentionally indicts itself when it uses Charlie Rangel, Harlem’s scandal-plagued congressman, as a character witness of sorts.

Like President Obama, who sees opposition to his policies as a matter of cynicism and self-interest, many Lindsayites saw political resistance not as a good-faith expression of disagreement but as evidence of racism, bigotry, reaction, and ignorance. A May 2010 symposium to celebrate the opening of the Lindsay exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York provided a vivid demonstration of this kind of thinking. One panelist, former congressman and Lindsay official Major Owens, suggested that opposition to the mayor and his policies was motivated by “evil,” a word he repeated several times.

The MCNY exhibit, and the new book edited by the New York Times’s Sam Roberts, complement each other nicely and are far more substantial than the WNET film. Like the museum’s earlier presentation on the Koch mayoralty, the Lindsay exhibit is strikingly evocative and considerable in scope. It recreates the Lindsay years in visually appealing and interesting ways, immersing the visitor in the New York of the late 1960s and early 1970s by gathering magazine covers, photographs, and posters. It neither shies away from controversy nor renders judgment. The material’s jagged layout, arranged by Urshula Barbour and Paul Carlos of the design firm Pure+Applied, captures the sense of the sixties, as does the layout of Roberts’s book, which intersperses its essays with contemporary commentary and memorabilia.

The essays that Roberts collects vary widely in their worth, but almost all share a set of problematic assumptions. The first is that New York, as suggested by the famous Herald Tribune series that set the stage for Lindsay’s first mayoral run in 1965, was in the throes of a terrible crisis. “I for one cannot stand by while the decline and fall of New York continues headlong,” Lindsay said in announcing his candidacy. But in 1965, New York had the best big-city school system in America. The schools that had helped pave the way for generations of peasant immigrants from Europe might have been able to incorporate a new generation of migrants from the rural American South. Taxes were high, but not yet so punishing as to drive mid-margin businesses from the city. Crime was rising but had not yet exploded. The crisis of 1965 was comparative. Liberal politicians like Lindsay believed that the knowledge to solve social problems was well at hand, and so they judged the situation not by comparison with earlier times—which would have shown them that things were actually quite good—but by the standard of what could be, if only men of vision had the money and power to remake the world.

The essays’ second problematic assumption is that Lindsay represented a sharp break between Robert Wagner, who preceded him, and Abe Beame, who succeeded him. His personal style may have been new, but on fiscal matters, Lindsay was part of a long line of New York mayors who have repeatedly plunged Gotham into near-bankruptcy. Like the nation, New York in 1965 was in the middle of perhaps the greatest economic boom in its history. The city gained 183,000 jobs in Lindsay’s first term. If New York was in fiscal trouble, the trouble was of its own making. That’s because even as gold poured into its coffers, the city insisted on spending even more—as it had been doing at least since La Guardia. “We’re going broke on $6.6 billion a year,” is how an incredulous Fred Hayes, Lindsay’s budget director, put it in 1969.

And that was before a recession walloped the city, from which the economy would not recover until the 1980s. To pay for his spending spree, Lindsay relied on increases in state and federal funding and short-term debt. By 1974, the city had $3.4 billion in short-term outstanding debt obligations, most of which it had accrued since 1969. Yet no matter how much he spent, Lindsay, like most liberals, insisted that “the ultimate problem is money—or rather, the problem of not enough money,” as opposed to, say, not enough wisdom. Lindsay was not alone in this view. Liberal oracle John Kenneth Galbraith thought at the end of Lindsay era that it was “remarkable” and “outrageous” that “so many people of wealth had left” the city.

If there wasn’t a true crisis in 1965, in 1968 Lindsay created one, at Ocean Hill–Brownsville in Brooklyn. With the guidance of Kennedy brain truster McGeorge Bundy, he turned over a school district to black nationalists, who proceeded to fire white teachers and violently intimidate others. The upshot was ugly: not just a series of teachers’ strikes, but bitter divisions citywide. Jason Epstein of the Lindsayite New York Review of Books captured the depth of the divisions when he argued, in a much-quoted statement, that “the city is now faced with a classic revolutionary situation.” For the white majority, Epstein maintained, the alternatives were “capitulation or genocide.” This conflict—not between left and right, but between the social-democratic, solidarity-based ideals of New Deal liberalism and the new, racially charged entitlement liberalism—ruined the city’s schools. The damage wrought by Ocean Hill–Brownsville is still not undone.

Lindsay’s entitlement liberalism doubled the city’s welfare rolls at a time when black male unemployment was 4 percent, so that when the economic downturn hit in 1969 and 1970, his policies—a bank tax, an income tax, a commuter tax, a stock-transfer tax, and higher real-estate taxes—made a bad situation far worse. By 1970, notes Josh Freeman, one of the contributors to the Roberts book, “Lindsay’s government employed more people than the garment, banking, and longshore industries put together.” In Lindsay’s second term, the city, reeling from rising costs and crime, bled 257,000 jobs.

It was Lindsay’s hubris and the hype that surrounded him that made his mayoralty special. Wisdom was sorely lacking. In 1972, journalist Steven Weisman, a contributor to the Roberts book, wrote that “the mayor has never been able to stop the city’s downward spiral. Services have continued to decline, division has deepened among races and economic classes, and there have been unending crises. . . . the quality of life in New York City has never seemed more bleak, its government never more sluggish, wasteful, and finally even helpless.” In 1970s New York, where just asking for a cup of coffee could get you a fat lip, the growth in crime and welfare and the decline in employment cut a generation of African-Americans off from the larger promise of American life, producing what would come to be called the underclass.

In the end, the city was worse off in 1974 than it had been when Lindsay took over in 1966. Not all the problems were of his making, of course. In fact, most predated his tenure. They worsened after he left office and were common to most other large northern cities of the period. But Lindsay, his minions in the press insisted, was supposed to be exceptional. He was elected to stop the city’s decline and rejuvenate life in New York. Instead, in the words of journalist Murray Kempton, he was a “splendid flop. . . . Failures can have their splendors and above and beyond all the variously unsuccessful Mayoralties that have been New York’s ration for the last 40 years, John Vliet Lindsay’s is the only shining failure.”

It’s a failure worth remembering. In his second term, Lindsay allied himself with the rising public-sector unions, the same constituency that has been central to Obama’s unsustainable expansion of federal spending based on borrowing. Lindsay wasn’t solely responsible for the fiscal crisis that hit New York in 1975, but his policies of expanding government spending and employment and paying for it with debt made it all the harder for the city to recover. It wasn’t until Carter-era inflation reduced the costs of the city’s massive debts, and then Reaganomics revived the stock market, that New York came out of the spiral that the Wagner-Lindsay-Beame era of spending and debt folly produced. A similar fate may now await America at the hands of our Lindsay-like president.

Fred Siegel is a visiting professor at St. Francis College in Brooklyn and a contributing editor of City Journal.

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