We were waiting for the NY Times to wax eloquent about the John Lindsay years-and airbrush the real legacy of the dilettante reformer. It’s a good thing that we actually lived through the years of Lindsay’s, “Fun City,” reign so that we can help narrate what his real legacy really was.
The occasion for the Times editorial is an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York. As the Times points out: “The potent graphics of Lindsay campaigning — caught on a new WNET video, “Fun City Revisited” — set the style for a generation of candidates who strutted the streets with rolled up shirt-sleeves and suit jacket flung over the shoulder. Mayor Lindsay walked his tinder box in earnest, most honorably in Harlem on the night the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and he tamped down potentially riotous grief. At the Museum of the City of New York, a gathering of talking-head contemporaries has the feel of the opening of “Broadway Danny Rose,” with colleagues still wondering who Lindsay really was. Museum visitors face the travails of his tenure, beginning with the transit strike chaos of his inaugural midnight. “I still think it’s a fun city,” the new mayor declared.”
We wonder why the wonder-and the talking heads choir that we saw on NY1 had a distinctive one sided liberal tone that, because of the trained incapacity that also animates the perspective of the Times editorial board itself, fails to capture the Lindsay legacy that haunts us to this day.
The Times does allude-in sotto voce it’s true-to some of the Lindsay policy calamity: “Things rarely get any better: garbage and teachers’ strikes, hostage taking in the city prison, poverty and soaring budget gaps (that his labor contracts and “superagency” initiatives helped compound), the now folkloric enmity of residents beyond Manhattan, those neglected by City Hall in snow removal and philosophy.”
“Folkloric enmity?” Now where do you suppose that could have come from? Perhaps it devolved from an almost complete disregard and utter disdain for the righteous concerns of outer borough home owners and tax payers who saw just how Lindsay’s policies targeted their quality of life-from Ocean-Hill Brownsville to Forest Hills (read; Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism for a glimpse of the milieu that Lindsay cultivated through his demeanor and policies).
And then there’s the unexplained, “soaring budget gaps,” that speeded NYC into its near catastrophic fiscal collapse just a few years after the Lindsay supernova burnt out (read Ken Auletta’s The Streets were Paved with Gold for the harrowing truth of Lindsay’s misplaced empathy and near imbecilic earnestness).
It is a legacy of liberalism on steroids, with policies that assumed-in Auletta’s words-that NYC could institute a socialist outpost within the confines of a capitalist economy. It was a city where crime metastasized and welfare became a way of life-and if anyone called out in horror as the parade passed by, they had to be retrogrades or worse, Neanderthals with vicious streaks of racism.
The Lindsay, “scatter site” housing program exemplified the entire mindset: “Aug 19, 1971. The Board of Estimate passes a motion to begin work on three 24-story apartment buildings to house 2,000 low-income and elderly citizens in Forest Hills, Queens, a middle-class community, as part of the Lindsay administration’s “scatter-site” housing initiative to promote mixed-income neighborhoods. Local Forest Hills residents, many of whom left Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Crown Heights sections when the poor populations of those areas mushroomed, are adamantly opposed to the new development. Protests ensue.”
Indeed they did-and then there was Ocean Hill Brownsville and the disaster of the community control of the schools experiment (read Diane Ravitch’s The Great School Wars: A History of the New York City Public Schools). Ineptitude built on a foundation of Lawrence of Arabia style condescension for the less fortunate-without Lawrence real affinity for his new found brethren.
Lindsay was a monument to liberal excess-and in Obama-like style triggered a massive counter-reaction. Much of what constituted domestic neo-conservatism-from Irving Kristol to Daniel Moynihan- owes a debt to John Lindsay and his policies. And the election of Rudy Giuliani was a culmination of that counter revolution-a movement that, in Rudy’s first term demonstrated that there was a more sensible approach to urban governance.
It is on Rudy’s legacy that Mike Bloomberg has succeeded in solidifying his three term reign-and without the successes that Rudy wrought, Bloomberg would never have gotten past the first term. The reason lays with the fact that Bloomberg, in his heart, is way more Lindsay than Giuliani. Yet it is the successful counterrevolution that Giuliani implemented-in reducing crime and welfare against the bitter protestations of the bien pensants at the NY Times-that has allowed Bloomberg to putter around with indoor smoking regs, trans fat banning, and other intrusive nanny-like behaviors; while at the same time raising taxes and racking up huge government payrolls and long term debt.
Bloomberg’s liberal dilettantism, so much like Lindsay's, survives because of the battles that Giuliani fought against entrenched interests and a mindset that believed that the issues of crime and chronic intergenerational welfare were insurmountable-and even if they could be overcome, the costs of the battle were too much for the status quo defenders to entertain.
To be fair, the Bloombergistas are a way more competent bunch-and certainly less idealistic and grandiose than the Lindsay kiddie corps. But the fact remains, that Bloomberg and Lindsay are really political soul mates. And if wasn’t for the successful reaction against the Lindsay mindset, Bloomberg wouldn’t have been able to govern.
But the Lindsay legacy is also seen in the current Tea Party movement as well-the reaction against overweening national and local governments that try to go way beyond the constraints that fiscal probity dictates. When we look at the president’s ambitious agenda-and the vitriolic reaction to it- we hear the echoes of a distant past. Once again, the Lindsay mindset is being exposed as dangerously inadequate to meet the political and social needs of a general populace that understands that too much government is never a good thing-and is always a threat to basic individual liberty.