For those of us old enough to remember, the path of the most recent liberal New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio, follows the arc pioneered by John Lindsay, the Golden Boy of 1960s liberalism. The Yale-educated Lindsay—who, as a congressman from the Upper East Side, was one of the chief architects of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act—promised to bring the glories of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society to the Big Apple. Similarly, the Columbia-educated de Blasio successfully won the mayoralty as a five-borough version of Barack Obama’s Chicago Way of politics. Both men rose by promising to resolve the irresolvable issue of race.
In the run-up to the 2013 election, de Blasio feasted on articles, editorials, and op-eds in the New York Times, proclaiming a crisis in police/minority relations. Lindsay had similarly benefited from a crisis created in part by the New York Herald Tribune, a long-gone paper that oversaw the fading fortunes of liberal Republicanism. The paper’s wealthy owner, Jock Whitney, and the publisher Walter Thayer, representing the city’s old-line elite, pushed Lindsay into the race to succeed three-term mayor Robert Wagner, who was forced into retirement. As in 2013, there was no imminent crisis in 1965, but the Herald Tribune helped create the rationale for Lindsay’s candidacy through an extended series of articles overseen by Barry Gottehrer, limning the city’s impending doom. The first installment in the long-running series was subtitled NEW YORK, GREATEST CITY IN THE WORLD—AND EVERYTHING IS WRONG WITH IT. “New York,” instructed the Herald Tribune, “is a nightmare—a hopeless city . . . a terrible place to live because of unsafe streets, poor schools and inadequate housing.”
In the first article of the series, Lindsay was quoted as saying that “under Mayor Wagner New York has lost its will power, its great energy, and its great leadership. . . . [T]o run this city properly and get it going again, the Mayor has to be very tough. . . . If we don’t get going again soon, New York will become a second-class city.” The crisis of 1965 was purely comparative, however. Liberal politicians like Lindsay believed, like the architects of Johnson’s Great Society, that the knowledge to solve social problems was 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 strikingly handsome, six-foot-three Lindsay was stylistically a world apart from his diminutive and rumpled opponent, clubhouse Democrat Abe Beame. In the general election, a near-record 80.8 percent of voters turned out. Lindsay won—with 45 percent of the vote, against Beame’s 41 percent—by arguing that he could best protect the city from the extreme right-wing program of third-party candidate William F. Buckley, who ran on the newly formed Conservative Party line. The silver-tongued Buckley, who called for the legalization of drugs and gambling, aroused enormous anger on the left by backing the city’s cops against accusations of racist policing and by proposing that welfare recipients work for their benefits. In his campaign—and in his subsequent memoir, The Unmaking of a Mayor—Buckley rejected the proposition that men and women had suddenly become far wiser than their predecessors.
Lindsay bemoaned unsafe streets, but crime exploded during his two terms as mayor, even as the economy was booming. He promised to reform the best big-city school system in America but left it in tatters. He promised to incorporate African-Americans more effectively into the city’s fabric, but he left the city polarized.
Bill de Blasio, meanwhile, won the mayoralty in 2013 as a New York version of President Obama, who had won reelection the previous year. Battling in a closely contested Democratic Party primary, de Blasio—then the city’s public advocate—conjured up a New York in crisis. The city did have real problems, but de Blasio trafficked in exaggeration. Long-standing class divisions were branded a “Tale of Two Cities.” De Blasio promised to close the income gap. Homelessness, he said, was the product of incumbent mayor Michael Bloomberg’s indifference; he promised to get the homeless off the streets and into shelters. De Blasio similarly pledged to reverse Bloomberg’s neglect of the New York City Housing Authority, the landlord of many of the city’s working poor. He got himself arrested to demonstrate support for maintaining the failing and inadequate Long Island College Hospital as a full-service facility. Most important, he depicted the police as racist, so hell-bent on oppressing young black men through their “stop and frisk” operations that he feared for the safety of his mixed-race, Afro-sporting son, Dante.
De Blasio narrowly won election in a three-way primary, barely achieving the 40 percent of the vote needed to avoid a runoff. He won a huge majority in the general election—a formality in an overwhelmingly Democratic city—despite a record-low 22 percent voter turnout. But that didn’t prevent his supporters at the New York Times from proclaiming a grand triumph that bestowed the mandate of 43rd Street on the new mayor.
Once in office, de Blasio found himself tangled up in his campaign promises. Wall Street, so often the target of his “Two Cities” rhetoric, finances the city budget. The homeless problem has grown worse. NYCHA continues to languish. LICH will become an emergency-care facility. The stop-and-frisk policies de Blasio decried had already been dramatically reduced during Bloomberg’s last year in office. To his credit, however—and unlike Lindsay, under whom crime exploded—de Blasio has given his extraordinary police commissioner William Bratton the leeway to maintain Broken Windows policing, keeping crime under control.
Both Lindsay and de Blasio promised to carry on the work of presidents who massively overreached. Fifty years after Lindsay, de Blasio still proposes social programs as an alternative to work—but with an important difference. In 1965, Great Society liberals held out the hope of racial inclusion. Today’s liberals offer make-work jobs designed to produce Democratic Party majorities. The underlying problem with both mayors is that they proposed, as Buckley warned, to do the impossible when they promised to straighten the “crooked timber of humanity.” But government, let alone local government, can do no such thing. As New Yorkers who are angered by de Blasio’s ideological tours in Iowa understand, mayors must stick to the prosaic problems—union contracts, road repairs, and taxation. When a mayor neglects these responsibilities, he ends up as Lindsay did— an exile in his own city.