This book, The Ungovernable City, John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York, published 13 years ago is worth our attention because it reveals the nature of the liberalism, regnant in the 1950s, beginning to falter in the 60s, that was unable to comprehend and cope with the problems of the time, discrediting itself, leading to its present bankruptcy.
The author, Vincent Cannato, tells us briefly of John Lindsay's life and career before he was elected mayor of New York in 1965, but the bulk of the book is about his two terms as mayor, an absorbing tale it is as the author concisely but fully describes the issues and policies, the actions and reactions of the figures involved in the politics of the city. His mastery of such an intricate account, so clearly written, is astonishing. I read every one of its 579 pages with unflagging interest.
The Lindsay family was not wealthy, but John, tall and handsome, looked like a WASP patrician and he followed that path - prep school, Yale, wartime service in the Navy, Yale Law School, a prestigious law firm in New York - until he deviated from the conventional norm to go into politics, supporting Eisenhower, becoming head of the city's Young Republicans in 1952. A friend recommended him to Hebert Brownell, the Attorney General, and Lindsay went to work in the Justice Department, concentrating on civil rights cases. In 1958 he was elected to Congress from the Silk Stocking district of east Manhattan, chiefly populated by the upper class Protestant elite. As a congressman, Lindsay followed a path that would be characteristic of his entire career: ignoring day to day parochial politics, like tending to the needs and wishes of his constituents, he concentrated on national and international issues, often voting with Democrats. He was a well-known Liberal Republican, a national figure, when he ran for mayor in 1965.
Those of my readers who are old enough will recall the almost magical aura that surrounded John Lindsay in those days, but when we read this account we understand how the aura was created and how misleading it was. When the Republicans nominated Goldwater in 1964 for President, a good many liberals were frightened (they are always ready to believe the local Legion post secretly harbors troops of jackbooted Nazis, a fantasy Lindsay himself would entertain), and Lindsay, who refused to support Goldwater, became a liberal hero in the struggle for the soul of the GOP. And because his rhetoric was lofty and earnest, he was thought of as an "idealist," a vulgar error the Vincent Cannato falls for. An idealist is one who believes in principles that transcend immediate material need; it does not mean blindness to material reality. When the word was used to characterize John Lindsay, it was a compliment; essentially it meant that he was high-toned, classy. In fact, the secondary meaning of idealist denotes impracticality and foolishness, and that's what he was. What were thought to be noble ideas were merely empty rhetoric.
He presented himself to voters as a fresh young man of noble intentions running against politics as usual (always an attractive line) who would solve the pressing urban problems of the day, and for awhile, New Yorkers were impressed. Right at the start, however, in fact on his first day in office, the Transit Workers struck for 10 days and chaos ensued. The truth was that Lindsay, who knew nothing about unions or how to deal with them, handled the matter very badly, finally saddling the city with a needlessly costly contract.
Lindsay was not a hands-on day-to-day mayor. He brought in consultants (always a bad sign) and tried to force sweeping changes in the government of the city, as when he amalgamated city departments into super agencies, eventually putting more bureaucrats on the city payroll than all the workers in the docks, the banks, the garment industry. I shall not review Lindsay's entire mayoral career, so well described in the book, but two issues, crime and disorder, must be discussed because they display dramatically the central flaw in Lindsay's (and liberalism's) understanding of American society.
Liberals in general were suspicious of the police, and "police brutality" was a constant theme. Lindsay believed was always distrustful of the police. So when Negroes began making disturbances, he publicly sympathized with them, believing their behavior justified by white racism. He made every effort to restrain the police and placate the rioters. He was very proud of the occasions when he walked the disorderly streets, trying to calm disturbances by his sympathetic presence. He was very anxious that the riots not be called by that name, not wishing New York to be listed along with Newark and Detroit where the riots were much more devastating. They were bad enough, and Lindsay's hobbling of the police made them worse.
Lindsay was a leading figure on the Kerner Commission, tasked to report on the urban riots, a report which reflected the liberal view that white racism caused all the trouble.
The seizure of buildings at Columbia by radial students in 1968 is the perfect example of the failure of liberalism as a theory of contemporary society and its governance. When the students occupied the buildings, Grayson Kirk, the president, wanted to call in the police but he was dissuaded. The faculty was divided, many sympathizing with students, and eventually 100 or so tried to intervene, placing themselves as buffers between police and students (the fatuity of the faculty is still astounding). Eventually the police cleared the buildings, but the damage was done: who were more representative of the liberal establishment, the high priests of its ideology, than college administrators and prominent faculty? And what did they turn out to be but hollow men, headpieces filled with straw spouting words without significance, and so they have remained ever since.
There were two theories of order underlying what was going on in New York: the liberal theory said that order could be attained only by removing the "root causes" of lawlessness; since they were ameliorated, all would be well. The other theory, the conservative one, is that underlying problems and frustrations are never solved by lawlessness - order must be kept, or restored first. The liberals were sympathetic to rioters, whether radical students or Negroes in slums, and John Lindsay epitomized that attitude, an attitude that was tested by the 60s and found wanting. It took Mayor Giuliani, with heightened police patrols and attention to details of disorder to vindicate the conservative view and make New York a safer city.
I think the title of the book is mistaken. The city is not ungovernable, as mayors later proved, and Lindsay cannot really be said to have struggled to "save" New York. That was what he said, and I'm sure he thought that was what he was doing, but in fact he was projecting the gaseous vision in his rhetoric onto New York, and the vision was empty even as Lindsay was mouthing it.
Liberalism never recovered from the 60s. Today it is no more than a ragged series of reflexive gestures waiting to be dispersed. *