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
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.