Mayors Fade Away; Bad Memories Don’t

Is there still a cult of nostalgia for the 1970′s? I seem to

remember there was one, but I paid it little attention, assuming that-as with

all pop-culture trends-it was the work of fools, and those wretched nihilists

whose names appear in the style sections of the world.

The deaths of John V.

Lindsay and Abraham D. Beame a few weeks apart inspired lengthy revisitations

to that awful decade, a time no New Yorker could remember fondly. The

obituaries for both men were couched in respectful terms, Beame’s especially.

His was the more tragic tale. An immigrant, and the first Jewish New Yorker to

win City Hall, Abe Beame was reared politically in the age of more, and it was

his fate to be Mayor when the true cost of that age revealed itself in

headlines about budget gaps and loans to pay loans. No crueler political trick could

be imagined: The accountant Abe Beame was in office when New York learned the

price it hadn’t been paying for romantic government. Rare it is that a

clubhouse guy gets stuck with a reformer’s unpaid bills, but such was Abe

Beame’s fate.

Perhaps out of sympathy, perhaps out of genuine appreciation

for a man who never lost his dignity or his integrity, Beame’s obit writers

were far more kind than his critics in 1977. But even at such a distance, it

was clear in the obits for both Beame and Lindsay that neither was especially

suited for the job he held, at least at the time he held it. John Lindsay would

have found the U.S. Senate more hospitable than City Hall; Abe Beame would have

been perfect as Lindsay’s predecessor, not his successor. But Lindsay wouldn’t

beg Nelson Rockefeller for an appointment to the Senate after Robert F. Kennedy

was killed, and so Rocky chose the obscure Charles Goodell. Beame didn’t

discover the joys of politics until middle age; by the time he grabbed the

municipal brass ring, the rules and assumptions he’d learned in the Brooklyn clubhouse were about to be overruled by

an unelected board of fiscal overseers.

In the memorable Mayoral campaign of 1977, Ed Koch summed up

the Lindsay-Beame era as eight years of charisma and four years of the

clubhouse. The remedy, Mr. Koch suggested, was simple but prosaic: Why not try

competence? There was in Mr. Koch’s record no indication of great

administrative competence-he was, after all, a Congressman-but an exhausted

citizenry was happy to hear such an uninspiring yet necessary message. A glance

at the Mayoral obits explains why: During the Lindsay years, administration of

basic services seemed less important than great pronouncements about big

issues; during the Beame administration, years of scandalous spending led to

tens of thousands of layoffs, closed firehouses and libraries, murder and

mayhem, and near-bankruptcy. The New York of 1965 was pleased to choose a

Mayoral candidate who seemed fresh; in 1977, New York simply wanted somebody-anybody-who

thought of City Hall as a workplace, and not as a place to stage ceremonies or

hand out patronage.

At a time when historians

in a hurry are preparing their first draft of the Giuliani years, the transition from Lindsay and Beame

to Mr. Koch is worth a moment’s reflection. Ed Koch ran not as an ideological

partisan, an ethnic champion, a charismatic ribbon-cutter or a clubhouse

careerist; he ran on the simple promise of competence. The city had grown weary

of its reputation-prized in Manhattan but regarded skeptically in the

boroughs-as Scandinavia on the Hudson, a semi-socialist island of human

services in a roiling ocean of grubby capitalism. Yes, New York City had

practically invented the American version of the social-welfare state, thanks

to Al Smith and Frances Perkins and Robert Wagner I, but in the 1970′s, the old

institutions and the old ways of thinking collapsed. From then on, few voters

would be satisfied with recitations from New York’s creed of high taxation,

expansive government and ethnic succession.

Mr. Giuliani campaigned

as an Ed Koch for the 1990′s, and his eight years have practically codified the

new Mayoralty. The four major Democratic candidates in this year’s election

emphasize variations on the theme of competence that Mr. Koch first gave voice

to after the trauma of the Lindsay-Beame years. Don’t expect Bronx Borough

President Fernando Ferrer to campaign as the candidate of New York’s Latinos;

don’t think Mark Green believes he can somehow redeem the failures of David

Dinkins and Ruth Messinger. Those are the old ways, and they are now history.

Mr. Dinkins’ Mayoralty, it turns out, was a well-intentioned aberration. Suited

best for ceremony, a symbol of the failed notion of ethnic succession, he will

be regarded as New York’s last Lord Mayor.

The deaths of the former Mayors and the recounting of their

careers now serve as a reminder of just how much things have changed in New

York, and why.