Saturday, December 19, 2015

Quote of the Day (Rudy Guiliani, on John Lindsay)

“John Lindsay defined an era in the life of New York City. He embodied the hopes of a generation after the death of John F. Kennedy, a time of discord, rebuilding, and re-birth, when all the action in our nation—for better and for worse—seemed to be taking place in our cities. He made New York City a symbol for urban America, by speaking out about what he believed was wrong, discussing what he believed could be made right, and proposing solutions whose legacy we live with today. There is no question that he had an enduring impact on the City that he loved. His energy, his optimism—and yes, his charisma—made him a national figure during the time he lived at Gracie Mansion.”— Rudolph W. Giuliani, Eulogy at the Memorial Service for Mayor John V. Lindsay, Friday, January 26th, 2001, delivered at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine

The half-lives of politicians—how, step by step, their vibrancy ebbs once they are out of the public eye—are rarely a happy sight. But John V. Lindsay’s seemed particularly sad and harrowing, especially in light of the “energy…optimism…and charisma” rightly noted by his fellow GOP member who followed him to Gracie Mansion two decades after he left it, Rudy Guiliani.

Lindsay died on this day 15 years ago in Hilton Head, S.C. He was far from the city that had elected him mayor twice, and, at age 79—battered by financial reverses, two strokes, Parkinson’s Disease and complications from pneumonia—even further away from the golden 44-year-old politician whose initial City Hall candidacy had inspired the memorable Murray Kempton line, “He is fresh, and everyone else is tired.”

Expectations, created by the likes of quotes like this, had become unrealistically high by the time he took over in January 1966. ''John Lindsay was the best mayor New York ever had before he took office,'' a press aide to his predecessor, Robert F. Wagner, is supposed to have quipped, according to the New York Times obit after Lindsay's death.

That predisposition to give Lindsay a pass because of who he was rather than what he had done is not unlike the rhapsodic reception accorded Barack Obama when he became President (including a Nobel Peace Prize awarded before the latter had completed even one year in office). The problem was that Lindsay not only had to campaign but govern. There, the magic vanished.

The similarities between Mayor Lindsay and President Obama did not end with great expectations. There is another, equally important one: the electoral coalition they hoped to count on. They were, in essence, much the same: the young, African-Americans, women, and liberals.

Fred Dutton, a former aide to Robert Kennedy who had moved on to advise George McGovern by the early '70s, saw these newly emerging groups as a means of shedding the Democratic Party’s union leaders, urban bosses, and related groups deemed too blue collar and reactionary. Seeing increasingly little room in the Republican Party for his brand of urban liberalism and this "new politics," Lindsay had switched parties in 1971 and run in the Democratic Party’s primaries the following year.

Lindsay’s electoral problem was not in failing to anticipate the future promised by these new groups (one on which Obama successfully capitalized in 2008 and 2012) but in not negotiating the here and now beforehand. He actually ran to the left of McGovern in 1972, but the South Dakota Senator had stolen a march on him in winning the support of these voters by using recent rule changes regarding composition of convention delegates to his advantage.

Worse than that, Lindsay disastrously exhibited early in his administration an almost aristocratic disdain for unions. This immediately complicated his relationship, in his first days in office, with the fiery Irish-born Transport Workers Union head Michael J. Quill, who contemptuously referred to the new mayor as “Lindsley.” 

The resulting strike, which lasted 13 days, immediately cost the city, in lost productivity and wages, an estimated $1.5 billion. Moreover, the eventual deal--$52 million for two years, double the size of any transit pact negotiated by Mr. Wagner—set a standard that other unions would try to match.

Over the following eight years, Lindsay would contend with strikes or sick-outs by the city’s police, teachers, bridge workers, sanitation workers, and firemen. To close the growing deficits spawned at least partly by these work actions, he pressed for a new municipal income tax--along with a new commuter tax--that managed to simultaneously alienate two groups who could not normally agree on anything: business leaders and blue-collar workers. (See a prior post of mine that contrasted the 1966 strike with one that had a more successful outcome: the 1980 transit strike under Ed Koch.)

For all his fierce unpopularity with a large portion of the electorate, Lindsay was fortunate that he didn’t have to face them when the bills for all this labor largesse had to be paid. By 1971, according to Ken Auletta’s The Streets Were Paved With Gold, the Lindsay administration had not only vastly overestimated its forecast of federal aid, but also issued more than $300 million of budget notes to cover inflated revenue estimates. The following year, it rolled up these notes with a new set. Through these budget gimmicks, the city was living beyond its means, setting the stage for the 1975 municipal bankruptcy crisis.

Inevitably, any historical assessment of Lindsay must take this fiscal irresponsibility into account. That does not bode well for his ultimate reputation. But other aspects of his work and career need also to be entered into the ledger. Ironically, the person who made one of the most eloquent and surprising cases for him is someone he had precious little in common with him.

In some ways Giuliani can be thought of as the ultimate anti-Lindsay: ethnic Catholic rather than WASP; a charm-challenged figure versus one whose affability was effortless and genuine; a Republican who quelled his maverick instincts enough to remain within the party fold, rather than one who found a more congenial home in the Democratic Party; a baseball rather than tennis fan; a politician whose base was the outer boroughs rather than Manhattan; and a chief executive acclaimed for rising to the occasion in a crisis, instead of one who seemed to fold his tent quickly when pressed by opponents. 

But once in awhile, politicians can sound unexpected grace notes. Guiliani’s came not merely in how he spoke of Lindsay after his death, but in how he had come to his aid before that.

Lindsay left City Hall a spent force in 1973, with even Kempton now calling him a "splendid flop." His last campaign, for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1980, ended with his defeat in the primary. Then, in the 1990s, two law firms with which he had been associated went bankrupt.  Surprisingly, a man associated with patrician, prep-school privilege had no health insurance and, under city rules of that time, no pension eligibility. All of this occurred as his health began to fail.

Enter Guiliani. Upon becoming mayor, he had been impressed by Lindsay’s graciousness in a long chat they had at Gracie Mansion. Amazingly, he even felt something of a kinship with the liberal as another politician who had tried to reform the old political system. Now, with other friends, he was able to secure for the former mayor a position as special counsel to the City Commission for the United Nations, with health coverage, a $25,000-a-year salary, and, under rules that had more recently gone into effect, enough time to qualify for the 10 years needed for a city pension.

In one sense, Guiliani may have been overly generous in stating in his eulogy that his predecessor had “an enduring impact on the City that he loved.” Unlike Fiorello LaGuardia, Ed Koch, Guiliani or Michael Bloomberg, Lindsay was not a transformative figure who either left the lives of New Yorkers demonstrably better off or changed the physical or operational landscape of the city. The perception grew under him that, far from being the “Fun City” he hailed, New York was an ungovernable one.

Yet Guiliani was also correct in recognizing, as even many who vehemently disagreed with his policies did (including a conservative friend of mine who told me he was the best interview he ever had) the essential decency and humanity of Lindsay. The problems of race that overshadowed his eight years in office have hardly vanished in America or New York, as events of the past year have shown. The one great achievement of his tenure can be phrased as a negative, but it remains significant for all that: unlike other American cities in the late 1960s, New York did not burn.

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