Jack Newfield on John Lindsay’s Re-Election: No Cosmic Significance


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November 13, 1969, Vol. XIV, No. 57

There Was No Mystery
by Jack Newfield

Columnists and politicians seem intent on extracting cosmic meanings from John Lindsay’s re-election victory. They see the end of the two-party system, a mandate for more state aid and peace in Vietnam, proof the Jews are still liberals, proof the Jews are bigots, the glorification of the Liberal Party, and much more.

But I think it is foolish to draw any broad conclusions from any Election Day that saw a Republican elected governor of Virginia, the 18-year-old vote rejected in New Jersey, a working-class reformer elected mayor of Pittsburgh, and Carl Stokes re-elected in Cleveland.

Locally, I would draw only one hard lesson from John Lindsay’s victory. The Mayor is a great campaigner, and Mario Procaccino was a lousy one. Period.

The Lindsay experience cannot be generalized to other cities, where there are not large black and Jewish voting blocks, and where no equivalent of the Liberal Party exists.

And I would not confuse Lindsay’s campaign with Lindsay’s administration.

Lindsay’s re-election drive was well-financed, well-paced, well-planned, and perfectly executed by the candidate. Lindsay is a terrific race horse. He looks good. He likes crowds. He knows how to shade and twist the facts to put the best face on any situation. He has enormous physical stamina. And he has pride and toughness beneath his Billy Budd exterior.

But the reason the campaign was so effective is that none of the regular city commissioners had anything to do with it. Of the five key campaign strategists, only one, Sid Davidoff, was part of the first Lindsay administration. The others — Dick Aurelio, David Garth, Mrs. Ronnie Eldridge, and Alex Rose — were all outside City Hall. And Lindsay himself is just much better as a campaigner than as an executive. In Professor James Q. Wilson’s useful categories, Lindsay has always been more interested in his “audience” than in his “constituency.”

No one can ignore the dramatic dimensions of Lindsay’s comeback from the far side of oblivion. Last winter his aides took a private poll that showed 74 per cent of the city “disapproved” of Lindsay’s performance as mayor. His wife and his press secretary were urging him not to run again, citing the examples of his friends Ivan Allen in Atlanta, Richard Lee in New Haven, and Jerome Cavanaugh in Detroit. Last February 6, I went to the Forest Hill Jewish Center with Lindsay, and watched middle-class Jews who had voted for Lehman, Wagner, and Robert Kennedy call Lindsay redneck names under the shadow of the Torah. And after he lost the Republican primary to John Marchi, syndicated columnist Russell Kirk wrote that Lindsay had “no chance” of being re-elected, and that his career “was finished!”

But it turned out that Lindsay’s defeat in the primary was, in Alex Rose’s words, “a blessing not in disguise.” Defeat liberated Lindsay from his past, from the Republican Party nationally, and from his own arrogance.

The afternoon after the primary he started calling up liberal Democrats, and meeting with them, and listening to them, and learning what really went on in remote neighborhoods, and learning that not everything his own commissioners told him was the truth. And he went out to Bayside and Flatbush, and talked to community groups, and began to get some idea of what the daily lives of clerks, and factory workers, and secretaries were actually like…

Now the problem facing the Mayor is to translate the energy and expertise of the campaign to his second administration.

He clearly made his share of blunders the first time around. As many observers have pointed out, he should have experimented with school decentralization first in white middle-class neighborhoods, so the UFT couldn’t have twisted it into a racial issue instead of an educational issue. There were concrete administrative reasons the snow wasn’t collected in Queens last winter. There was sabotage, and there was sloth, and there was corruption.

Also, Lindsay’s judgment on appointments in the past was too often swayed by inflated but false reputations. Of his 15 top commissioners, only four have impressed me: Fred Hayes in budget, Howard Leary in police, Ken Patton in Commerce, and Bess Myerson Grant in Consumer Affairs. New blood seems particularly required in the Parks Department, in HRA, and on the City Planning Commission if Lindsay is to have a new beginning as an executive.

But the fact remains that John Lindsay is now the only national political figure independent of both parties, and with a following among the urban, peace, black, and youth constituencies.

I have followed Lindsay’s person and career closely since his days as a maverick congressman. The first piece I ever published in The Voice, in November of 1963, was one promoting Lindsay for mayor.

I have since then sporadically regretted that flight of fancy: the night he seconded Agnew’s nomination, his days of ambivalence during the second and third school strikes, his lingering failure to identify with the frustrations of low-income whites.

But I now think that Lindsay has fundamentally been changed for the better by the events of the last nine months. He has become more humble, more skeptical, more open — and less Republican. He has been educated by his painful journey through the boroughs, and humbled by his need to reach out for fusion with his recent critics.

With the diminished stature of both Ted Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, Lindsay’s future seems limited only by fate and his own frailties.

But first, and now, he must prove his worth in the bankrupt battle pit of City Hall. And this time he had better do it right, because no one has ever heard of a Third Coming, either in religion or politics.

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