As the great men and women of municipal government shook
their umbrellas and hats and chatted to each other about the rain and the
solemn state ritual at hand, they passed-some without noticing-a vision from a
dimly remembered past. Some 10 feet from the main doors of City Hall was a picture,
mounted on a small wooden frame and wreathed in a bunting of grieving purple,
of John Vliet Lindsay, 103rd Mayor of New York, dead at age 79 just before the
new year. If you were to describe the picture, you would be tempted to say it
was classic Lindsay: his face young enough to be energetic and vital, yet with
a little gray at the temples, enough to remind you that he was fresh in 1965
and out of date by 1972. It was classic Lindsay, all right-but then again, what
picture of John Vliet Lindsay was not?
City Council members and
Mayoral advisers and lobbyists and influence-seekers chatted their way past
Lindsay’s picture, up the grand staircase, up to the Council chamber, to hear
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani deliver his final State of the City speech. Council Speaker
Peter Vallone, who would like to cap a long career in government service by
succeeding Mr. Giuliani in this year’s election, was given the unenviable task
of hushing the masses before the Mayor made his grand entrance. He did so with
the avuncular ease of a television-game-show host performing in front of a
mildly raucous crowd. “O.K., ladies and gentlemen,” he said when, at last, the
signal was given that the Mayor was at the Council chamber’s threshold. “You
are part of history tonight.” With that, Mr. Giuliani-the first Republican
since Lindsay to win the Mayoralty and the first to be made lame by term
limits-entered the chamber for one last summation of the city’s condition.
His audience contained more than a few wise elders who would
have adult memories of the turbulent Lindsay years. Paul Crotty, the
soft-spoken government professional who has handled portfolios in both the Koch
and Giuliani administrations, took his place with other civic worthies. Henry
Stern, once a young Council member from Manhattan filled with the kind of
vitality Lindsay sought to bring to government, sat to the Mayor’s left, almost
obscured behind the huge backdrop-a picture of the downtown Manhattan skyline.
Mr. Stern, an eccentric, white-haired man who has been Mr. Giuliani’s only
Parks Commissioner, took notes as the Mayor spoke.
Though Mr. Giuliani made
no mention of Lindsay as he opened his speech, there were two implicit
citations of the dead Mayor within the first few minutes of the long,
astonishingly extemporaneous monologue. Ruminating about the extra year he will
have as Mayor thanks to his voluntary exit from last year’s Senate race, Mr.
Giuliani said, “Maybe it’s the second-toughest job in the world.” When John
Lindsay ran for his second term in 1969, there were no maybes about it. Lindsay
won with the saddest excuse of a campaign slogan: “It’s the second-toughest job
in America.” In other words, yeah, I screwed up, but do you think any of these
other guys could do any better?
The second implicit
reference to Lindsay no doubt was not meant as a reference at all, save to
those who are paid modest amounts of money to conjure something from nothing.
To illustrate his praise of the city’s civil-service work force, the Mayor
displayed a picture of a snow-stricken Times Square during the New Year’s Eve
Blizzard of 2000. He then showed a picture, taken only hours later, of a plowed
Times Square, with traffic moving freely. The chamber applauded; how
many of these Council members and influence-seekers
remembered the trouble that unplowed snow once caused John Lindsay?
For nearly two hours, in a well-rehearsed but scriptless
performance, the Mayor waxed ecstatic about the crime-solving potential of DNA
evidence, lectured his listeners about the need to abolish the Board of Education,
offered the helping hand of government money for housing, and summoned no small
amount of passion on the subject of school vouchers. “A civil rights issue,” he
said of vouchers.
John Lindsay would never
have made such an argument, nor would he have delved so deeply into the
business of service delivery. He was a man made for big pictures. And, we were
reminded in his obituaries, he was a man who kept racial peace at a time when
other cities were burning. He walked the streets of Harlem.
Rudy Giuliani, it is understood, wouldn’t dare try such a
gesture. But it would not seem overstated to say that Rudy Giuliani inherited a
city that was home to a daily low-level riot, and as he prepared to leave, the
annual body count approached levels not seen since the year John Lindsay seemed
And, oh yes, he made sure the streets were plowed.