Friday, May 14, 2010

Limousine Liberal

Mayor John Lindsay with constituents

For no apparent reason, no anniversary, no continuing issue, New York is commemorating Mayor John Lindsay, one of its most controversial mayors. There is a big exhibition at the City Museum and a recent TV documentary.

The conservative mayoral candidate Tom Procacino coined the term “limousine liberal” in 1969 to describe John Lindsay, the incumbent mayor running for a second term. And he looked and acted the part: tall, good-looking, polished, with a patrician speaking style. He was dearly loved by some as a crusading idealist, and bitterly hated by others as a privileged nabob.

The Civil Rights movement and desegregation came to New York City under Mayor Lindsay. That may seem an extraordinary thing to say, but it’s not. New York was a very segregated city with segregation laws as bad as anything in the South. Local segregation laws in New York compelled major jazz and film stars like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Lena Horne to enter the city’s grand hotels through side doors and kitchens. Jesse Owens, the hero of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, had to ride the freight elevator of the Waldorf-Astoria to attend a banquet in his honor. And these humiliations were small compared to those suffered daily by poor and middle class African Americans of the city.

In 1965, it was clear that desegregation was coming to New York. The question was, would it come peacefully or violently. Malcolm X’s violent death that year seemed to indicate that the process would be hard and violent. Racial conflict is at the heart of almost all the city’s crises in the late 1960s. The process was very hard with a lot of bad feeling, but it wasn’t nearly as violent as people originally expected. A large measure of the credit for keeping the process peaceful goes to the mayor, John Lindsay.

Appearances in politics are often deceiving. John Lindsay, the original “limousine liberal,” was not quite what he seemed. Far from being a blueblood, his grandfather arrived from Britain as an immigrant in the 1880s. His father became a successful attorney. Yes, Lindsay went to elite schools like Saint Paul’s and Yale, but he went there on scholarship. Lindsay did not begin his political career as a Democrat, but as a Republican.

Lindsay is frequently compared, favorably and unfavorably, with New York’s great New Deal mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. LaGuardia too was not what people assumed him to be. He was not the Italian working class Catholic that people thought. LaGuardia was a cradle Episcopalian educated in Episcopal schools. His father was a convert, and his mother was Jewish. New York’s great populist champion of the New Deal was a lifelong Republican. LaGuardia successfully brought the New Deal to New York, but at the price of segregation. African Americans in New York, as in most of the rest of the country, were mostly excluded from New Deal programs and benefits. This exclusion ended during John Lindsay’s tenure.

New York changed dramatically in the years Lindsay served as mayor. The city he inherited from his predecessor in 1966 was worlds apart from the city he left behind in 1973. In 1966, Robert Moses still reigned supreme in the Port Authority, regally ignoring the wishes of city and state governments. By 1973, he was dethroned and in retirement. In 1966, there were no African Americans in the mayoral cabinet and few in the City Assembly. By 1973, there was a whole generation of rising and influential Black politicians in city government. In 1966, the city was reasonably well run for most (though not all) of its residents. By 1973, crime was skyrocketing and the city headed rapidly toward its fiscal crisis. These were tremendous changes. The question remains, how much credit or blame can Lindsay claim? Lindsay arrived in office in 1966 with Murray Kempton’s famous slogan about everyone else looking tired. He carried more than a little of the old charisma of the late John F. Kennedy who had died only 3 years before. By 1973, he left office convinced that he had failed. Journalist Joyce Purnick claimed to see him in tears as he quietly moved out of his office in City Hall.

City employees had just recently won the right to organize when Lindsay became mayor in 1966. The new city employee unions clobbered the fresh-faced new mayor as soon as he moved in. Lindsay faced a transit workers’ strike as soon as he took office. During his tenure, he faced strikes by the sanitation workers, by teacher’s unions, and a work slowdown by the police. These unions played their role in the city’s racial tensions. The city’s unions were overwhelming white and largely Italian and Irish. The teachers’ union was largely Jewish. All of them resisted attempts to integrate the city’s workforce while demanding higher wages to meet the rising cost of living in the city. Lindsay’s handling of the unions was frequently clumsy and indecisive.

Lindsay actively cultivated and recruited Black politicians and leaders. He attempted to integrate the city’s workforce and its government. African American New Yorkers would be his most consistently loyal constituents. In the process, he alienated a lot of working class whites who hated the mayor bitterly. The question arises, could any mayor have integrated the city’s government without alienating somebody? Working class whites in the Outer Boroughs felt ignored while they faced crumbling infrastructure and rising crime in their own neighborhoods. This all came to a head with the Snowstorm of 1969 that dumped 15 inches of heavy wet snow on the city. The streets of Manhattan were plowed promptly while those in Queens were left impassible for days. Lindsay belatedly visited snowbound Queens walking the streets and found himself heckled and pelted with snowballs. The debacle nearly cost him re-election, and every mayor since gets the snowplows rolling in the outer boroughs as soon as the first few flakes fall.

Lindsay in Queens during the 1969 snowstorm

Lindsay is largely credited, and rightly so, for sparing New York the racial violence suffered by other cities in the years from 1965 to 1969. Nearby Newark burned with police and National Guard troops fighting gun battles with local residents in 1967. After an outbreak of violence in Harlem in 1966, Lindsay courageously walked the streets of the neighborhood talking to residents. In 1968, television and radio carried the news of Dr. King’s assassination. Lindsay decided to visit Harlem against the advice of his security detail who said they could not guarantee his safety. Everyone expected the city to explode. Lindsay spent the night walking the streets of Harlem encouraging people to talk about their feelings. This was probably the mayor’s finest moment, an act of genuine courage that spared New York the destructive violence suffered by so many other cities around the country that year. I doubt he could have brought it off if he had not already cultivated a measure of respect and credibility with the city’s African American population in his attempts to integrate the city’s workforce.

The Mayor during a visit to Harlem.

Lindsay’s management of the city’s racial conflicts was not always so inspired. He frequently cultivated, and spent public money on, radical Black nationalist groups who did not always speak for their communities. These groups, and the mayor’s tacit support, further alienated working class whites, and especially the city’s Jewish population. A case in point is the Brooklyn School District 41 crisis. Lindsay decided to give local neighborhoods a voice in determining the education of their children, a generous decision that was not very thoroughly thought through. Entirely Black school boards now supervised entirely white, and largely Jewish, teacher workforces. The all Black board of District 41 decided to fire or transfer (the record is unclear and contested) an all white teacher and administration staff. This quickly inflated into a very ugly racial battle with openly racist and anti-Semitic epithets loudly thrown back and forth. The teacher’s union threatened a citywide strike. The mayor backed down and the teachers in District 41 were reinstated over the wishes of the local school board and without any kind of hearing or investigation into the conflict. This left lasting ill will between the Black and Jewish populations of the city.

The "Hardhat Riot" of 1970. Lindsay ordered the city's flags flown at half-mast in honor of the students who died at Kent State that year. Hardhats rioted and broke onto the grounds of City Hall to raise the flags to full staff. Lindsay blamed the police for a half-hearted effort to defend City Hall against a mob. The construction workers' unions accused the mayor of Communist sympathies.

The Stonewall Riots happened while Lindsay campaigned for his second term. Gays and Lesbians emerged as a major political force in the following years. Some politicians like then Congressman Ed Koch recognized this and cultivated a gay constituency. Lindsay, like a lot of liberals at the time, was extremely uncomfortable with this population. Gay activists made a special point of targeting Lindsay with their “zaps.” Conservative politicians were considered a lost cause, but liberals needed to be reminded of who else voted out there. Gay activists frequently interrupted and disrupted his public appearances.

New York during Lindsay’s term became the poorer more crime-ridden city of the 1970s. How much of the blame for that can be laid on Lindsay? His spending policies exacerbated the city’s fiscal problems. He inherited a system from his predecessors where city governments would borrow from banks what was beyond their budgets and roll the debt into next year’s budget. A combination of larger union contracts (mostly benefiting working class whites) and social spending (mostly benefiting the city’s minorities) worsened the city’s financial situation.

Forces larger than any mayor helped create the mess of New York in the 1970s. Since the end of World War II, federal and state policies in New York and around the country favored the suburbs at the expense of the cities. Robert Moses (who ironically did not drive) designed and built highway projects that favored the automobile over public transport, and that bypassed poor and minority neighborhoods. The infamous South Bronx of the 1970s was a consequence of Moses’ decision to split the Bronx with the Cross Bronx Expressway.
This situation only began to change in the 1980s when the professional classes began moving back into the city center in New York and in other cities around the country, forsaking the suburbs.

Concerns about crime have long been used as a figleaf for white anxieties about race. However, crime in New York really did skyrocket in the late 60s early 70s. While whites were the most vocal complaining about it, most of the crime victims were minority. Lindsay’s poor relations with the police and their union made the situation worse, and so did the police department’s very poor relations with minority communities. The police force became convinced that the mayor worked at cross purposes with them, while minority communities saw the police as an army of occupation there to keep them quiet rather than to protect them from crime.

Could any mayor have managed this combination of minorities’ rising expectations, and rising fear and resentments among whites? Could any city government have successfully managed the huge economic and social transformations of that period? That will remain an open question. While Lindsay is frequently blamed for making the fiscal crisis worse, what would have been the cost to the city of NOT spending money on desegregation and social amelioration? What institution other than the city’s government could have made the effort to fully incorporate estranged communities into the city’s political and economic life?

Mayor Lindsay gradually faded from public view. He made a short abortive attempt at the presidential nomination of the Democratic party in 1972. He made a few brief appearances on television and tried a comeback as an author. He spent his last years in relative poverty in a retirement community in South Carolina suffering from Parkinson’s disease. He was uninsured. Rudolph Giuliani (a very different mayor from Lindsay) signed an executive order hiring Lindsay to a ceremonial post so that the former mayor could receive city medical benefits. Lindsay died from pneumonia and Parkinson’s disease in 2000.

Mayor Lindsay on the Staten Island Ferry


I barely remember John Lindsay. I was only a boy in Texas when he was Mayor of New York, but I certainly knew of him. He was a good and a brave man, though feckless and naive. He wanted to find a way for all of New York's many quarrelsome communities to live together and to find a common identity as New Yorkers. He wanted to please everybody, to be liked by everyone. That's hardly the worst fault in people, but it does not make for very effective political leadership. His overtures to the white working class were usually too little too late. Those concessions sometimes came at the expense of his most faithful supporters in minority communities. Frequently, his policy decisions do not seem to have been carefully thought through in terms of their larger impact and their cost. He was an elected official with powers limited by the city's charter. The state government frequently stepped into labor disputes and tied his hands.
And yet, without his leadership, New York would probably be an even more fiercely divided city than it is now.


I went back and read the old New York Times obituary for Mayor Lindsay. He was even less of a true blue blood than people thought. His grandfather was a brick maker from the Isle of Wight. The mayor didn't die in relative poverty, he died in poverty. His medical expenses consumed all of his money. He spent his last years together with his wife in a one room apartment in South Carolina.


Wormwood's Doxy said...

What a sad and fascinating story! Thanks for sharing it.

It's interesting---the whole time I was reading it, I was wondering if this is what's going to happen to Barack Obama....

Counterlight said...

I sometimes wonder about that too. I think Obama is smarter than Lindsay, and certainly not as naive. I wonder if Obama's mistake is excessive caution.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

As far as I'm concerned, Obama and +Rowan are cut from the same bolt of cloth.

I simply cannot respect people who privately believe one thing, but won't work for justice in the public sphere.

You also won't find me cheering for Laura Bush and her much-belated admission that she is pro-choice and pro-same-sex marriage. Silence is complicity in my view.

JayV said...

Although my family moved from NY to NH a few years before Lindsay became mayor, my Republican mother always liked him and thought he got a bum rap. My socialist Dad, not so much. As a gay boy who'd recently come out, I thought he was hot!

Thanks for writing this history of the Mayor.

I found on-line this interview with John Lindsay on the first Earth Day, forty years ago.

He was in Union Square with an NBC reporter and the fourth grade students at Sacred Heart School.

MAYOR LINDSAY: Girls, what are you doing today?

YOUNG GIRLS: Cleaning up New York City.

MAYOR LINDSAY: Why are you doing it?

YOUNG GIRLS: To keep the city clean.

MAYOR LINDSAY: How about having Earth Day everyday?


MAYOR LINDSAY: But you have to go to school too.


JCF said...

Wonderful, fascinating post, Doug.

In the picture of him in Harlem (in the Cool turtleneck!), I'm struck by his resemblance to Paul Newman.

"Lindsay did not begin his political career as a Democrat, but as a Republican."

Should this be the other way around? I remember him as "The Last Liberal Republican". Perhaps he flipped back, at the end, but I'm certain he was a Republican when he was elected Mayor (what did he do before that?)

May he rest in peace, and rise in glory.

Counterlight said...

Lindsay was a Republican until 1969 when he ran for his second term as an independent. He lost the Republican primary to a conservative, and the Democrat (Procacino) was also conservative. He won 41% of the vote in a 3 way race against 2 conservatives. Curiously, the Chamber of Commerce and other business interests backed Lindsay in that election because of his ability to deliver a measure of racial peace. New York's Black community turned out in droves to vote for him. They did not want either of the 2 other guys to win.
Lindsay became a Democrat in 1972 running in the primaries as an anti-war candidate. I don't think he won any primaries and dropped out of the race quickly.
He was indeed one of the very last liberal Republicans (the first of whom was Abe Lincoln).

Counterlight said...

Ya know, he did look a little like Paul Newman.

June Butler said...

Thanks for the story, Doug. Lindsay tried, but he didn't have quite what it took to govern well. His legacy of integrating the city without the violence that took place in other cities is one that I hope he took pride in. I'm sad to hear that he died so poor.

He reminds me of former mayor of New Orleans, Moon Landrieu, who faced some of the same problems but governed better than Lindsay. To this day, the Landrieu name is mud to many in New Orleans, because he "let the blacks into City Hall". , except most of the time they use another word besides "blacks".

As a straight woman, I thought Lindsay was hot, too.

Rick said...

I also distantly remember Mayor Lindsay - what a sad denouement.

From this account his downfall was not lack of moral courage - it took plenty to go to Harlem the night MLK was killed - but lack of mundane nuts & bolts governance skills. Which is just what Obama has in spades.

Whatever moral dimension there is to politics, it is all about 'works.' Obama has impressed the hell out of me, but perhaps for almost the same reasons that some of you are disappointed by him.