Monday, May 10, 2010

The apple of New York's eye

In America's Mayor: John V. Lindsay and the Reinvention of New York, a group of high-profile writers reappraise the career of one of the more important political figures in the city's history

The following review was posted last week on the Books page of the History News Network.

When I was a child growing up in metropolitan New York, a product of white flight, there was no one my father, a New York City firefighter, viewed with more contempt than mayor John Lindsay. I never recall him referring to Lindsay without an epithet attached to his name. Later, my father explained to me the meaning of the term "limousine liberal," coined during Lindsay's 1969 re-election campaign by his Democratic opponent, Mario Procaccino. It's one whose meaning I make it a point to explain regularly now that I'm a history teacher in an elite New York City school.

In the years since Lindsay's second term ended in 1973, I acquired information about him and his administration from other sources. My admittedly rudimentary understanding was that Lindsay got elected in a liberal Republican in the mid-sixties -- a time when such a term was not an oxymoron -- which meant he had a strong commitment to the welfare state, and a disposition toward minorities that antagonized the white working class. Like many politicians of  his ilk, Lindsay tried to solve social problems by throwing money at them, which perhaps bought the city some time but helped precipitate its financial collapse in the 1970s. In the decades since, Lindsay's administration became an object lesson for all his successors, who were made to understand that social reform simply could not come at the expense of fiscal discipline -- or law and order.

Published as part of an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, and in tandem with Fun City, a PBS documentary whose title refers to a half-ironic nickname of the era, this book is clearly part of a larger campaign of Lindsay revisionism.  Actually, the mere table of contents alone -- which boasts a roster of writers that include editor Sam Roberts as well as Pete Hamill, Nicolas Pileggi and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, along with academic heavyweights Josh Freeman, Charles R. Morris and Kenneth Jackson -- itself constitutes a historiographic statement. You kind of have to be consequential to attract this kind of talent, an impression that gets stronger when one learns, for example, that some of these people, like Jeff Greenfield (author of one of the more candid essays), actually worked for Lindsay.While the collective portrait that emerges is not uniform, the overall tone is one of admiration for a man who, while in some respects limited, was nevertheless a committed and courageous urban reformer.

The brief for Lindsay that emerges from these pages has two core components. The first emphasizes his boldness as an executive, in ways that range from his charismatic, pro-active Civil Rights and antiwar stances -- think Mad Men's Donald Draper with a conscience -- to his innovations in public management, urban planning, and even promoting New York as a cinematic location (a surprisingly important legacy in literally reshaping the image of the city). The other emphasizes the severe political headwinds Lindsay faced in some of the most tumultuous years in New York's history. A number of these writers cite Lindsay's bravery in walking the streets of dangerous neighborhoods like Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, and note that his contemporaries credited his characteristic stance of restraint in helping New York avoid the conflagrations that engulfed other cities in the wake of Martin Luther King's assassination.  

The case against Lindsay, made most succinctly by Morris, but also developed with some nuance by former New York Times writer Steven Weisman, note Lindsay's dependence on buying labor peace with municipal unions -- who never warmed to him in any case -- in epic struggles like the transit strike of 1965 and the notorious Ocean Hill-Brownsville teacher's strike of 1968, which exposed a painful racial fault line between blacks and Jews. Moreover, after some early success in getting state and federal funding for an increasing welfare burden, Lindsay became increasingly prone to resort (or to acquiesce in the resort) to borrowing for operating expenses.Virtually all the writers note a powerful and durable perception of Lindsay's lack of common touch with white (especially Catholic) working-class voters, and a bias toward Manhattan at the expense of the outer boroughs, a perception that crystallized during a major snowstorm in 1969. And yet for all this Lindsay managed to win re-election on the Liberal ticket despite being dumped by the Republican Party; he eventually became a Democrat. (Jeff Greenfield, in his affectionate piece on the campaign, puckishly emphasizes Lindsay's luck in the weakness of the competition and the coattails of the New York Mets.) All agree he made an ill-advised entry into the 1972 presidential race as a Democrat that proved futile and damaged his standing at home, and leading to the permanent end of his political career by 1974.

But in a way, such arguments are beside the point in a book that is a remarkably rich social document. John Lindsay -- an upper-east side WASP -- was a strikingly photogenic man, and the book captures the freshness that made him such a celebrated figure at the time of his election to the mayoralty in 1965. Beautifully designed with photos that bleed off the page, America's Mayor is also notable for charts of elegant simplicity, as well as a panoply of evocative primary sources in the form of excerpts from writers like Murray Kempton and Jimmy Breslin. There are also a string of running 21st-century "reflections" from people like Ed Koch  and Jeffrey Katzenberg (a teenage volunteer for Lindsay). More than most exhibit catalogs, the book is a bona fide time capsule and a wonderful conversation piece, as well as a substantial work of scholarship.

One does wish the portrait was a bit more rounded, in a fuller sketch of Lindsay's background, and a bit more on his post-mayoral career prior to his death in 2000. I also would have liked to understand Lindsay's notoriously poor relationship with another liberal Republican, Nelson Rockefeller, who was governor during the years Lindsay was mayor. (Was it a matter of personalities? Rivalry for the national stage? Was there no philosophical symbiosis?) But Lindsay's heirs, literal and figurative, have much to be happy about in this persuasively sympathetic portrait.

When I mentioned to my father that I had received this book for review, I was surprised by his reaction. He told me he had been talking with a fellow retired firefighter recently, and they had agreed that Lindsay had been good for their pensions. Time apparently had healed some wounds through the miracle of compounding. Dad, and New York, survived the Lindsay administration. An ironic achievement, but a real one nonetheless.