Hugh Carey, 1919-2011

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Hugh Carey, New York governor from 1975 through 1982.

Photo by: NYS Library

Hugh Carey, New York governor from 1975 through 1982.

Having left public life in 1982, Hugh Carey at first glance embodies a different era in politics—that time in the late 20th Century when World War II vets came home, went to school, got involved in local political “machines,” won elections and governed responsibly.

But Carey’s death this weekend, as a major ratings agency downgraded U.S. debt after the summer’s embarrassing debt-ceiling debate, was a reminder that the argument over who should bear the cost of government is as present in 2011 as it was in the darkest days of New York’s fiscal crisis, when Carey—elected in 1974 after several terms as a congressman—steered New York through its near-bankruptcy.

In a biography released last year, Seymour Lachman and Robert Polner detailed Carey’s key role in the fiscal emergency, and examined how his personal background shaped his ability to respond to the debt crisis. As we wrote in our review last summer:

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.”

Read more about Carey, and his times, here.

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