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“The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York” by Vincent J. Cannato (Basic Books, 703 pages, $35) Not long ago, I wandered into an event at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution featuring a discussion of a new biography of former New York Mayor John Lindsay. The panel included the biographer, Vincent Cannato, a fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute; Martin Tolchin, who had covered Lindsay as a New York Times reporter in the 1960s; and Michael Barone, the U.S. News & World Report columnist. As people mingled prior to the event, panel moderator E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings frantically searched for someone in the audience who might have something positive to say about Lindsay, who died late last year. It soon became clear why Dionne was so concerned about finding balance. Cannato outlined the theme of “The Ungovernable City,” that Lindsay’s term, from 1966 to 1973, essentially symbolized the failure of urban liberalism. And Cannato’s assessment turned out to be the kindest. Tolchin thought Lindsay was an unmitigated elitist who made a number of “horrendous decisions,” and Barone called Lindsay “the most disastrous American public official in the second half of the 20th century.” As Cannato notes in his book, Lindsay entered with such grand expectations that they were bound not to be met. Glamorous, handsome, athletic, 6 feet 4, and Yale-educated, with solid civil rights and civil liberties credentials, Lindsay was elected in November 1965, in “the afterglow of a period of idealism that came to be called Camelot.” He attracted a bevy of bright young public servants, from Jeff Greenfield (now at CNN) to Peter Goldmark (now CEO of The International Herald Tribune) to Eleanor Holmes Norton (now Washington, D.C.’s delegate in Congress). His very first day in office, however, Lindsay was hit with a transit strike that shut down New York’s subways for the next 12 days, paralyzing the city. That disruption set the tone for a very turbulent and chaotic eight years of racial discord, prison riots, teachers walkouts, and garbage strikes. It is tempting for Lindsay defenders to say he would have looked better if he hadn’t had it so rough, but Rudolph Giuliani’s recent performance as mayor suggests the right leader can shine in times of crisis. Cannato concedes that Lindsay’s biggest accomplishment is that New York didn’t erupt in race riots to the same extent as other cities. While other mayors shrank in fear, Lindsay took frequent walking tours of slums, noting, “I think it’s important for the people in the ghettos to see their mayor.” But that admirable demonstration of caring sometimes morphed into aristocratic condescension, Cannato argues, for Lindsay often appeared to engage in what our current president calls the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” On the issues of welfare and crime, in particular, Lindsay alienated working-class white — and black — New Yorkers who played by the rules, worked for a living, and stayed out of trouble. When then-Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.) suggested that welfare recipients earn their checks by cleaning city streets, for example, Lindsay expressed shock: “The use of welfare mothers with brooms and spikes in the middle of Fifth Avenue brings us back to the dark ages.” During a time when crime in New York was skyrocketing, Lindsay’s major emphasis was on curbing police brutality through a Civilian Complaint Review Board. The notion, Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “originated in the liberal upper-middle-class white community of the city as a measure to control the behavior of the less liberal, lower-middle-class white city employees toward members of the black and Puerto Rican community of varying social classes.” Put to a referendum vote, the Lindsay-backed board went down 63 percent to 37 percent early in his administration. On the issue of racial integration, in schools and housing, Lindsay traveled two very different, somewhat contradictory, paths, both of which managed to alienate lower-middle-class whites and neither of which wins Cannato’s approval. When Lindsay was first elected in 1965, liberal intellectuals like Yale Law School’s Alexander Bickel believed the mayor would take key steps to integrate the city’s schools and housing. But in office, Lindsay embraced an alternative strategy for school improvement: “community control.” As part of an idea hatched by the Ford Foundation’s McGeorge Bundy, the notion was that if schools couldn’t be integrated because of political opposition, local communities should be given more control to improve their separate institutions. Ocean-Hill Brownsville, a black ghetto in Brooklyn, was one of the first test cases. The experiment took a disastrous turn in 1968, when black community leaders summarily dismissed 13 white teachers and six administrators for alleged incompetence and negative views about the students. This led Albert Shanker, then-president of the United Federation of Teachers, to close down the schools with a series of systemwide strikes, one of which lasted more than a month. Shanker didn’t defend the competence of each and every teacher, but he did argue that they deserved due process before being fired. In the standoff between the teachers union and community control advocates, some black radicals resorted to violence and threats and anti-Semitic taunts against white teachers. Bickel noted the irony: Where in Little Rock, white parents had shouted at black students for integrating schools, now black militants were shouting at white teachers for teaching in black schools. The whole battle split New York’s progressives: Old Left vs. New Left; Jews vs. African-Americans; liberal union leaders defending the rights of workers vs. liberals sympathetic with the aspirations of black radicals for greater control. Upper-crust business leaders — the chairman of IBM, the president of RCA, and the president of Time Inc. — sided with supporters of community control, Cannato notes. In some ways, the dispute presaged today’s fight over school vouchers, with community control activists calling for “experimentation,” and teachers unions warning against Balkanization. Lindsay was clearly in the New Left camp. Shanker was widely disliked in City Hall, and was, says Cannato, “the only man Mary Lindsay ever banned from the living quarters at Gracie Mansion.” Michael Harrington noted that “John Lindsay has not once given the slightest hint that he has any sympathy for, or understanding of, unionism.” Even as Lindsay supported community control in schooling, he clung to the ideal of integration in housing. Lindsay served as vice chair of the 1968 Kerner Commission, which declared, in striking and now-familiar language, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” In general terms, the commission clearly backed integration of people over funding strategies to provide more money for separate ghettos. In 1971, Lindsay supported a controversial plan to build low-income housing in the white middle-class Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens. The policy was premised on the notion that low income children and adults do better when they have access to middle-class neighborhoods — an assumption subsequently validated by a wide body of research — but middle-class families of all colors, many of whom had fled low income areas, fiercely resisted the idea of “scatter-site” housing. A little-known lawyer, named Mario Cuomo, ended up brokering a deal in which a smaller number of low income units were built, with 40 percent set aside for senior citizens. The other big issue of the time, of course, was Vietnam. As mayor, Lindsay’s views were as a practical matter irrelevant, but his commitment to civil liberties and the right to protest were seen by some middle class whites as tolerance of outrageous behavior by protesters, including students who took over Columbia University in 1968. The confrontations, Cannato says, pitted the affluent (Columbia students) against the working class (police) and once again Lindsay sided with the wealthy. Two years later, Lindsay’s allegiance was with war protesters against rioting hard hat workers in downtown Manhattan. Cannato’s story of working-class alienation from liberalism is familiar, and has been told well and often, by, among others, Jim Sleeper, Fred Siegel, Jack Newfield, Samuel Freedman, and Jonathan Rieder. Liberalism’s disdain for lower-middle-class white ethnic voters was politically unhealthy not only for Lindsay, but also for the Democratic Party, which he belatedly joined in the early 1970s, shortly before an ill-fated run for the Democratic presidential nomination. While Lindsay was in 1965 supported by a broad cross section of voters, his re-election in 1969 was built around a narrower top-bottom coalition of wealthy white Manhattanites, whom he had represented in Congress, and low income minorities. He won, running on the Liberal Party line, mostly because his opponents, Republican John Marchi and Democrat Mario Procaccino, split the majority conservative vote. So what are we to make of John Vliet Lindsay? Cannato’s critique of Lindsay’s penchant for what Procaccino famously called “limousine liberalism” is partly valid, but it also represents a classic over-correction. True, for a period of time, intellectuals saw the world only through the eyes of the dispossessed; but Cannato can see only white working-class grievances against blacks and elite whites. One can legitimately make the critique, for example, that it’s unfair to place low income housing in working-class white areas, to the exclusion of communities populated by the upper brackets. But that criticism should not be used to justify inaction toward segregation altogether, leaving poor African-American kids consigned to bad housing and bad schools, just because middle-class whites don’t want to make room for them in their neighborhoods. Few politicians have been able to do both — to see that poor blacks and struggling whites have legitimate concerns, and even common interests. Another New York politician during Lindsay’s tenure, the Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was one. While working-class whites and blacks were at war with each other in New York City, Kennedy managed to unite those constituencies behind his 1968 bid for the presidency, communicating, for example, with blacks in the ghettos of Gary, Ind., but also with the city’s white steelworkers. As Vincent Cannato makes abundantly clear, however, John Lindsay was no Robert Kennedy. Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is author of “All Together Now: Creating Middle Class Schools through Public School Choice” (Brookings Institution Press, 2001).

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