Mayor John V. Lindsay seen in 1966. His eight-year mayoralty is usually deemed a failure, but a new book takes a more nuanced look.

Photo by: Orlando Fernandez

Mayor John V. Lindsay seen in 1966. His eight-year mayoralty is usually deemed a failure, but a new book takes a more nuanced look.

The Man Who Saved New York: Hugh Carey and the Great Fiscal Crisis of 1975
Seymour P. Lachman and Robert Polner
Excelsior Editions
Hardcover, 229 pages, $24.95

America’s Mayor: John V. Lindsay and the Reinvention of New York
Edited by Sam Roberts
Columbia University Press
Paper, 256 pages $29.95

In the 1996 cult classic “Kingpin,” Woody Harrelson plays Roy Munson, an aging loser filled with regret over his squandering of great talent and high hopes. In one scene, someone makes reference to “getting Musoned.” Harrelson does a double take. Munsoned? The other guy explains: “You know. Munsoned. To be up a creek without a paddle. To have the world in the palm of your hand and then blow it. It’s a figure of speech.” Harrelson recoils at the realization that his name has become synonymous with failure.

From the time he left City Hall on New Year’s Eve 1973 until his death in 2000, former Mayor John Lindsay was often confronted with a similar realization. Elected to City Hall in 1965 after three terms in Congress, the handsome, liberal Republican was hailed as “fresh when everyone else was tired.” But after his two terms, and especially after the fiscal crisis that closely followed Lindsay’s departure from office, he was held to personify everything that had gone wrong with New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s: Rising crime and welfare dependency, disinvestment and flight, racial polarization and fiscal irresponsibility.

Hugh Carey, the 91-year-old former governor, suffers a different problem. A Congressman who served as New York’s governor for two terms and was considered a potential candidate for national office, Carey is an all-but-forgotten figure. While Lindsay’s name is mocked, Carey’s is rarely breathed. This is especially true in accounts of the fiscal crisis in which he played a courageous and central role. Credit is heaped on financiers like Felix Rohatyn and labor leaders like Victor Gotbaum for steering the city—and by extension the state—through. Carey escapes both blame and praise.

One-time colleagues in the House, both players in the drama of the fiscal crisis, the two politicians are also linked another way: Both embraced a higher, nobler form of politics than is familiar today, albeit with vastly different results.

Hope’s aftermath

“America’s Mayor: John V. Lindsay and the Reinvention of New York,” which accompanies a dazzling exhibit on the Lindsay years which runs through October 3rd at the Museum of the City of New York, is not as detailed an examination of New York’s 103rd mayor as Vincent Cannato’s “The Ungovernable City.” But where Cannato focused his conservative lens mainly on Lindsay’s failures, the new collection of essays edited by the New York Times’ Sam Roberts brings a less ideological and broader view.

Lindsay’s reputation for weakening the police department—largely because of his support for a civilian review board, the losing side in a brutal referendum battle with the cop union—is challenged by Nicholas Pileggi. Yes, Linday’s demanded that police use restraint. But this was coupled with a shift in strategy toward sending overwhelming numbers of blue shirts into the streets when disorder threatened. The more cops who showed up, the less likely that there’d be a reason for any of them to break out the batons. Lindsay’s police department also embraced statistical approaches to crime-fighting, and the mayor fought for and won a fourth shift of cops on the street.

The increase in municipal workers wages under Lindsay, typically seen as an indication of political cowardice and a cause of the fiscal crisis, was more than that, Joshua Freeman notes: “When Lindsay took office, many city employees lived in poverty, or close to it. By the time he left office, city workers’ earnings had risen sharply and their benefits had greatly improved, allowing them to live far more comfortable lives.”

Charles Morris credits Lindsay for real improvements in the management of the city, like developing tracking systems that measured the productivity of public service delivery. But also exposes Lindsay’s Achilles’ heel: A committed and eloquent champion for the rights of minorities, he was unable to understand how his focus on the problems of blacks and Hispanics affected whites, “many of whom had only precarious perches in the middle class.”

Others delve into Lindsay’s contributions to the public image of the city through encouraging the use of city streets as movie sets, his view of New York as a not just a place to work and live but to explore and enjoy, his deeply flawed but nonetheless complex record on finances: Lindsay battled—although not hard enough—against some of the very fiscal gimmicks that history accused him of embracing. He gets credit for attracting energetic and skilled people to government. Pete Hamill, while acknowledging the mayor’s deep weaknesses, honors Lindsay’s walk into angry crowds in Harlem the day Martin Luther King was slain. “John Lindsay that night confronted the dragons of a possible urban apocalypse,” Hamill writes. “There are men and women alive today who might have died that night except for Lindsay’s uncommon valor.”

All in all, it becomes obvious that there is no all in all; giving any mayor of New York an overall grade is like asking someone what the weather was like in the 1980s: the whole cannot accurately reflect the parts. Still, Kenneth Jackson gives it a shot. As time passes, he says, “Lindsay is beginning to look better.”

The rescuer

At one point in the fall of 1975, with New York City a few hours away from defaulting on payments that it owed bondholders, people who held city notes began lining up at the Municipal Building to cash them in before they became worthless. City lawyers made out a bankruptcy petition. How close was the nation’s largest city to the abyss? A police car was kept running outside City Hall, ready to make a mad dash to a federal bankruptcy judge.

The trip never had to be made, because the crisis was averted—one of a series of distinct fiscal emergencies and near misses within the larger drama of the fiscal crisis detailed in “The Man Who Saved New York: Hugh Carey and the Great Fiscal Crisis of 1975,” by former State Senator Seymour Lachman and one-time Newsday scribe Rob Polner. The city’s emergence from the crisis—caused when credit markets soured on the short-term debt that New York floated to stave off the crushing bills it could not pay—was a painful saga. But had bankruptcy occurred, it might have been far worse, not just for the city but for the state and other cities and states, too, whose bondholders would be spooked enough by New York’s demise to sell anything attached to the public fisc.

Lachman and Polner conclude that “in any narrative about the fiscal crisis … Carey … belongs at the center, although most historical and analytical accounts of the period have no put him there.”

The authors make this case convincingly with a portrayal of Carey, who served as governor from 1975 through 1982, as a man whose background equipped him perfectly for the job. He was raised by a father who had displayed a gut-level aversion to bankruptcy during the Great Depression, instilling in Carey a deep, moral dread of insolvency. Charming and shrewd, during his time in Congress Carey befriended many of the men who would hold the city’s fate in their hands when the governing came lobbying for federal help during New York’s darkest hours. Carey was tough enough to brush off a Brooklyn political boss’s death threat, and wise enough to surround himself with a crack team of advisers who helped navigate the crisis.

Through argument and compromise, he eventually managed to get a beleaguered mayor, embittered city unions, impatient bankers, upstate legislators and even a Republican president on the same page. He took risks (“The city is drowning and we have tied ourselves to them irreversibly,” is how one Carey aide described the state’s predicament) and played skillful backroom ball, calling in old chits and playing the occasional golf game to get bankers and Congress to line up behind New York. He somehow did so without surrendering the city’s and state’s last shreds of pride. “We need and deserve federal assistance,” he told a Congressional committee. “We are not asking for a handout or a bailout.”

It’s an incredible story—dramatic, filled with larger than life personalities and moments when politicians in City Hall, Albany and Washington faced the choice between expediency and responsibility and chose right. Lachman and Polner do not revisit the standard explanation for the fiscal crisis; there is no hint of questions about whether the profligate city deserves so much of the blame and financial speculators so little. But they do provide an engrossing and accessible story of how the crisis unfolded, full of sudden storms, false dawns and Carey’s sure voice “Bankruptcy for New York City is now behind us,” Carey said when the immediate crisis passed. “Talk of collapse and chaos should now disappear.”

Reclaiming history

Nothing separates these two histories of uncommon men as much as the relative role of the subjects’ voices. Carey gave lengthy interviews with the authors and his insights on the events of the crisis year of 1975 clearly inform the Lachman and Polner book.

From Cannato’s tome we know that Lindsay thought history had treated him unkindly. But in Roberts ‘ book, Lindsay’s post-mayoral voice is absent but for a poignant moment when, at a reunion of his City Hall staff, someone quips that his 1965 campaign slogan: “He is fresh when everyone else is tired.” No, Lindsay answered. “We are tired and everyone else is dead.”

What links Lindsay’s and Carey’s stories is the hopeful politics that both represented: Lindsay, a liberal Republican who saw in government the capacity and obligation to effect social justice; Carey, an outer borough liberal Democrat and Kennedy acolyte who believed in a progressive, moral politics.

Lindsay’s demise has come to be seen as a judgment that his vision was naive or just plain wrong. One can certainly argue with that. But there’s no arguing that Carey, by traversing the fiscal crisis, opposing the death penalty, dispensing Solomonic justice on Attica and closing Willowbrook, delivered on his promise. Luckily, Lachman and Polner remember.