While doing interviews for a biography of Paul O’Dwyer, the late civil rights lawyer and political activist, I knew I should pay a visit to Abraham Birnbaum, a retired politician who, at age 94, shows up for work every day at a bank on Park Avenue.
The 5-foot 2-inch Mr. Birnbaum was sitting behind an immense oak desk. He was immaculately dressed in a blue pinstriped suit, a powder blue shirt, a red tie emblazoned with the official seal of the City of New York, and a tie clasp of the sort my father always wore to union meetings and church.
Yes, Abraham Birnbaum-better known to a generation of New Yorkers as Abe Beame, the first Jewish Mayor of New York-remains an active participant in the life of his adopted city. New York honored this immigrant from London by electing him Mayor in 1973, but turned on him four years later, in the midst of the city’s catastrophic fiscal crisis, when he took the blame for everything from the Son of Sam to an infamous blackout to Wall Street chicanery.
His office is spacious, but it looks cramped because of the dozens of photos and plaques adorning the walls. During our two hours together, he took seven phone calls, including one from a Democratic State Committee operative who asked about the wording of a journal ad Mr. Beame had purchased. “Oh, I don’t care about the words,” he said, politely but impatiently. “The important thing was the check, wasn’t it?” It was clear that Abe Beame hadn’t forgotten the first rule of politics.
Mr. Beame’s fall from grace was engineered by former Governor Hugh Carey, whose allies have long maintained that Mr. Carey acted in the best interests of New York because, they say, Mr. Beame was an incompetent who couldn’t manage the city’s finances. Actually, much of the animosity was inspired by Mr. Beame’s refusal to fire city workers en masse to close the city’s yawning budget gaps.
Mr. Beame’s side of the story about those perilous times is seldom told. It varies, as you might expect, from the official version, and it deserves to be heard. “Carey was angry because I supported Jimmy Carter early in 1975, a year before the Democratic convention,” Mr. Beame told me, remembering these events of a quarter-century ago as if they took place yesterday. “Carey was furious; he wanted the vice presidency and was trying to go to the convention … as a favorite son. That’s the real reason he turned on me.”
There was a trace of sadness and bitterness in Mr. Beame’s voice as he recalled the machinations that led to his becoming the scapegoat for the city’s financial problems. He had been an early supporter of Mr. Carey’s successful gubernatorial campaign in 1974. And he prized loyalty: He rose through the ranks of the vaunted Brooklyn Democratic Party, and was trained in its values. Mr. Beame said he hasn’t spoken with Mr. Carey since those turbulent years in the mid-1970’s. “Once, we were at an event and he tried to shake hands with me, but I refused,” Mr. Beame said. “He’s an ingrate.”
He brightened, however, when I brought up O’Dwyer’s name, reminding him of a conversation he had with O’Dwyer during the fiscal crisis. O’Dwyer was City Council President during the Beame years, and so was first in line to become Mayor in case of a vacancy, which, for a while, seemed possible as word leaked that Mr. Carey and Felix Rohatyn were exploring ways to remove Mr. Beame from office. The political and financial establishment, however, considered O’Dwyer a dangerous radical. O’Dwyer at one point took Mr. Beame aside and said: “Abe, don’t worry. As long as I’m alive, I’m your insurance.”
Abe Beame deserves to be remembered as a great New York story, not as the man portrayed as a dithering hack who presided over the disasters of the 1970’s. He was reared in poverty on the Lower East Side after his family emigrated from England. He recalls moving six times because his family couldn’t pay the rent. In a sense, he never forgot his journey from poverty, and it is no coincidence that as Mayor, Mr. Beame worked well with black politicians.
Mr. Beame’s office reminds visitors of just how long he has been a part of this city’s civic life. There were pictures of Mr. Beame with friends like Cardinal Francis Spellman, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Dwight Eisenhower (“a fine fellow,” Mr. Beame said of Ike, though he was quick to add he helped get out the vote for the General’s opponent, Adlai Stevenson, in 1952 and 1956). He showed me a proclamation inducting him into something called the Queen Isabella Society. Mr. Beame said he accepted the plaque not knowing that under Queen Isabella, Spain expelled its Jewish population. “And here I was, the first Jewish Mayor of New York,” he said. No matter. The plaque remains on his wall.
But not everything in his office is about the distant past. He showed me a letter from Yankee owner George Steinbrenner inviting him to this year’s Opening Day. Another recent letter came from a prominent city politician thanking him for his help in defeating Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s proposed revisions to the City Charter last November. Also on the pile was a gracious thank-you note from Hillary Clinton. There also were invitations to all sorts of civic functions. At 94, Abe Beame is not a forgotten man.
As I listened to his stories, I remembered how he and his staff thought of people like me-I worked for Paul O’Dwyer in the 70’s-as “radical kids.” Mr. Beame couldn’t understand why O’Dwyer, who was his contemporary, put young people like us on the city payroll. In fact, Mr. Beame tried to get me fired from O’Dwyer’s office because I appeared on television to denounce a mayoral proposal for an amusement park on Staten Island. But this wasn’t a time to bring up old fights.
It was time to go, but not by my choice. Mr. Beame looked at his watch and announced that he was late for his next appointment. Once upon a time, when I was working as a reporter, I would have asked him where he was going and who he was going to see. If he wouldn’t tell me, I would have filed a Freedom Of Information request with his office. This time, of course, there was none of that; it was time for listening without confrontation.
I asked him if I could return for a follow-up interview. The taciturn ex-Mayor, famous for keeping his own counsel, didn’t want to tip his hand. “We’ll see,” he said as I bade him goodbye. I suddenly thought, morbidly, that I might never see him again. But then I recalled the words of his former aide, Stanley Friedman, who had helped arrange this meeting. “Hey,” Mr. Friedman said, “he’s healthier than you. Don’t worry about him.”
Sure enough, a month later, I was watching television and there was Abraham Birnbaum, a onetime teacher from the Lower East Side whose parents were socialists, shaking hands with the President at the funeral of Cardinal John O’Connor. He was looking as spry as any Mayor, former or current.