Prisoner of City Hall: John Lindsay’s New York

The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York, by Vincent Cannato. Basic Books, 579 pages, $35.

In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy wondered whether men make history or history makes men. Years of reading history, watching other people make it and involving myself a bit in city and state history-making leads me to believe that both theories have merit. If that reads like a political answer, just consider the source.

This rumination was triggered by my reading of Vincent Cannato’s biography of the late Mayor John V. Lindsay. Mr. Cannato’s work deals with Lindsay’s eight-year odyssey as Mayor, from his starburst entrance onto the national stage to his descent into political oblivion. I am almost always impressed when I see a volume of history by an academic presented in lean, crisp prose. Mr. Cannato, who has a Ph.D. in American history from Columbia University, has written such a book. His summaries of the major issues confronting John Lindsay’s New York are both clear and concise.

Consider, for example, his trenchant summation of the voodoo budgeting techniques that characterized much of Mayor Robert Wagner’s tenure: “As comptroller in the last Wagner administration, [Abe] Beame had also been the lone political voice warning about Wagner’s use of selling bonds to cover current expenses. Usually bonds were issued only for capital expenses: bridges, roads or schools. Wagner, facing a budget shortfall, used money raised by the sale of bonds to pay the day-to-day operating costs of city government. His motto was ‘A bad loan is better than a good tax.’”

This was exactly the kind of fiscal practice that culminated in near-disaster after Lindsay left office, when Wall Street decided to stop lending the city money in the mid-1970′s. And it precipitated the crisis that finally led to a virtual state takeover of city government as the price of a massive bailout.

It’s important to note that Mr. Cannato, like other Lindsay chroniclers, neither absolves Lindsay from continuing some of those risky fiscal maneuvers nor condemns him as the most culpable practitioner. He recalls that Mayor Lindsay’s first term was marked by adherence to his promise to put the city’s finances back in order, but the demands made by major spending increases prompted him in his second term to resort to such budget gimmickry as short-term debt, which had reached $3.4 billion by 1974, a year after he left office.

As chairman of the State Senate Finance Committee in 1975, I was among those in the Legislature who worked on the legislation that helped stave off city bankruptcy that year. Governor Hugh Carey, Senate Majority Leader Warren M. Anderson of Binghamton, Assembly Speaker Stanley Steingut of Brooklyn and I joined with Wall Street savant Felix Rohatyn, chief architect of the bailout package, and the municipal labor unions to write the rescue plan.

In addition to dealing with the city’s fiscal problems during the Lindsay years, Mr. Cannato’s narrative tautly relates the major issues with which Lindsay and his circle of bright, superconfident advisers grappled. It addresses the city’s racial tensions, during which the Mayor showed exemplary spirit by walking the streets in 1968 hours after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. And Mr. Cannato focuses on the memorable crises of the Lindsay administration: the subway and sanitation strikes, the infamous snow-removal failure of 1969, the teachers’ strikes and the struggle over community control of the schools.

A few personal observations may be in order here. Regarding the subway strike of 1966, it’s safe to say that no Mayor wishes to launch his first term by dealing with a transit workers’ walkout on his first day in office. But that was John Lindsay’s fate.

It is true that Mike Quill, the flamboyant leader of the Transport Workers’ Union at the time, was passionately determined to lead a strike, as Mr. Cannato writes. But the new Mayor, intent on handling New York’s labor relations in a new way, suffered from inexperience in trying to avert the strike. Quill did, indeed, play the hard-nosed Irishman of the streets, as if to emphasize his members’ contrast with the patrician Lindsay. He relished the role.

As a New Yorker and, at that time, a 10-year State Senator, I knew Mike Quill and something of his methodology. He required the kind of stroking that Mayor Wagner provided. But it appeared that John Lindsay’s pride and stated determination to do things differently kept him from attempting the kind of private, personal ice-breaking that might have prevented the bus and subway shutdown.

The Mayor’s objective was to avoid the kind of settlement with the union which, in part, had weakened the city’s finances. Yet after the 13-day walkout had ended, Lindsay had basically agreed to what Quill had initially asked for: a 15 percent raise for all transit workers and some other benefits, a deal about double what the union had negotiated two years earlier.

My reaction at the time was that New York could not afford this kind of transportation disruption and its obvious impact on business and industry here, especially if the end result of negotiations was to give the union just about what it had sought. Subsequent repetitions of this episode with other unions only underlined my belief that in the late 1960′s, new leadership was required.

Before New York reached that point, however, I had considerable contact with Lindsay, City Council leaders and others grappling with the other big issues of the time. Foremost among them was the move to allow more community control over public education.

In an attempt to secure more state money for city schools, Lindsay’s budget director pressed for state legislation that would have considered New York’s five boroughs separate entities for purposes of calculating state financial aid, as I had suggested as early as 1961. Up to that time, the city was considered one school district by state distribution formulas.

I preferred a modified version, one that would formally establish five separate school districts. This would, among other things, have produced more direct state aid for the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island, my hometown.

After conducting a major study demanded by Lindsay, Kennedy adviser McGeoge Bundy and his commission produced a plan for “decentralization” of the city schools. We passed a modified version of it in Albany in 1968. Final agreement came after a little comic opera: We had met in Governor Rockefeller’s Manhattan office on a spring Saturday to work out a compromise. While the Mayor’s people, Rockefeller’s staffers, the state Education Department’s representatives and my counsel, Dave Jaffe, waited to wrap up the package and I’d stepped out for what should have been a brief appearance elsewhere in the city, fate intervened. They waited four hours to formally sign off and announce an agreement. But my counsel wouldn’t sign off until I told him to. I didn’t; I was preoccupied. The police had towed my car while I was in the meeting, with all that that entails.

Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor?

Mr. Cannato’s report on the 1969 Mayoral election–when I successfully challenged Lindsay for the Republican nomination–sticks to the facts admirably, without a hint of the Jovian overview that many of his fellow academics often apply to events past. He shows that the Mayor had managed to create the perception among many New Yorkers in the “outer boroughs”–not a favorite term of mine–that he was not as sensitive to their needs as he should have been. The city’s inability to handle snow removal after the epic storm of February 1969 further diminished the already-fading affections of many middle-class citizens for their Mayor.

I had never seriously considered running for Mayor. I enjoyed being a Staten Island State Senator and especially liked working on New York City problems in Albany. But the tides and cross-currents sweeping New York during Lindsay’s first term, and his reaction to some of them, prompted me to reach for the Republican banner. To the surprise of some pundits, Republican voters gave me the party’s nomination, defeating Lindsay and forcing him to run for a second term on the Liberal Party line.

Mr. Cannato relates accurately how I got involved in the Mayor’s race, despite some reluctance. Just for the record, I did not, as he reports, call Senator Jacob K. Javits a “pompous, posturing ass.” After he suggested that my candidacy was motivated by neofascist instincts, I told reporters, “That is the statement of a pompous, posturing ass.” This may be a fine distinction, but I feel it should be made. Incidentally, I always supported Senator Javits, and I did so with special enthusiasm during the Republican primary of 1980, when Alfonse D’Amato made Javits’ failing health a campaign issue.

After the heady experience of winning my party’s nomination had subsided, I knew that the fun really was over. The big Democratic enrollment in the city, more at home with Lindsay’s status as a Liberal Party candidate in the November election, plus Governor Rockefeller’s less-than-enthusiastic reaction to my primary victory, turned the election for Lindsay.

Mr. Cannato gets this and just about everything else in his book right on the money. One small point, though: My hometown newspaper is the Staten Island Advance , not the Staten Island Advocate.

The John V. Lindsay I saw and the one that Mr. Cannato saw are the same man: decent, well-intentioned, but the victim of overpowering changes in the city landscape that were compounded by his inexperience.

It was my privilege to get to know Lindsay better in the years after that election. During the 1990′s, we met for lunch occasionally and chatted about the fine arts, sea duty in World War II and our good fortune in having terrific wives. Mary Lindsay was an admirable First Lady of New York and remains an estimable individual today.

Tolstoy, I think, would at least agree on that.

State Senator John J. Marchi is one of the nation’s longest-serving legislators, having been elected to the Senate in 1956. He was the Republican Party’s Mayoral candidate in 1969 and 1973.