News & Politics

John Lindsay Lame Ducks Himself


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March 15, 1973, Vol. XVIII, No. 11

John Lindsay: Goodbye to all that
by Clark Whelton

It had been raining through the early spring afternoon, but 30 minutes before John Lindsay was due to land in Milwaukee the weather turned around and winter came back from Manitoba. The rain stopped. A freezing wind drove clouds across a green and black sunset. Puddles on the runway began to ice. The Lindsay people looked at their watches, then up at the dark sky. John was late. Took off from Madison 40 minutes ago. Should have been here by now.

No one spoke, but reporters were already thinking leads. “Just when it seemed that his Presidential campaign was finally getting off the ground…”

“Caught in a cold front, John Lindsay’s light plane…” But a few minutes later Lindsay’s four-seat Cessna taxied up to the terminal. Lindsay, wrapped in a tan trench coat, his hair blowing, threaded his way through the parked airplanes and walked across the apron alone. It was the peak of his career. 10 days before disaster in the Wisconsin primary.

The door opened and Lindsay climbed onto the press bus. “What a ride,” he said. “It was bump bump bump all the way.” He came down the aisle. I sat slouched against the side of the bus, staring out the window. I had been writing anti-Lindsay articles in the fight over Forest Hills and was learning again how miserable it is to meet in person someone you’ve just worked over in print. I kept my head turned, but Lindsay stopped by my seat, leaned over, and touched my shoulder. “Hi,” he said, flashing a wide smile.

He went to the back of the bus and the campaign moved off into Milwaukee. For the next three days I watched John Lindsay charm his way around the city, sleeping on a Pabst beer truck driver’s couch, pushing mass transit, bad-mouthing expressways and property taxes, talking tough on crime and drugs. He was terrific. More than once I found myself thinking: “We could use a guy like this in New York.”

Then I remembered that we used to have a guy like this in New York, and when John Lindsay announced last week that he would not try for a third term in City Hall, I thumbed through the back issues of The Village Voice to learn more about this man we used to love. The Voice is a good place to look. Lindsay and The Voice grew up together. In 1962, when Lindsay was the liberal Republican Congressman from the Silk Stocking District (which jogged down into the Village), he reviewed “The Village Voice Reader” for the New York Times. He liked it. Most Voice writers returned the compliment and John Lindsay got very good press in the Village.

When Lindsay ran for mayor in 1965. The Voice got behind him and pushed. It’s hard to remember now the agony most Democrats went through to support a liberal Republican, but the Democratic alternative, Abe Beame, was out of the question. Michael Harrington thought the party deserved to be punished for offering us a candidate like Beame, and backed Lindsay. A Jules Feiffer cartoon warned that a 1965 Lindsay win would raise Republican stock around the country and make a 1968 Nixon victory possible (that Feiffer — what a card!). Norman Mailer, using his talent for back-alley metaphysics to explain why only John Lindsay could cure the “malignancy” which was spreading in this city, said that “New York is ill beyond belief.” Mailer chewed his nails over the “Negro militants” in Harlem and the “paranoia of the Right.” “Mailer, you know you have to be a little crazy to run for mayor of this town,” Lindsay told Norman one day, but Mailer remained a fan. “I think he’s okay, in fact I think he’s a great guy,” Mailer said of Lindsay, but doubted that John could win. “Camp is going to defeat John Lindsay,” Mailer concluded.

But it was Mary Perot Nichols, in a front-page plug, who summed up the reasons why The Voice was backing Lindsay. “He offers us the only chance for a renaissance in city living,” Nichols said. “He has a vision of a civilized city.” Abe Beame would only keep old cronies of Robert Wagner like Armand D’Angelo and Newbold Morris, and “with Beame in City Hall we can expect another spate of unplanned, speculative, mindless building.” Lindsay would be different. He “would hang a skybus on the Verrazzano Bridge as a mass transit facility. He would put hydrofoils on our rivers to take us to beaches and other recreation places, he would put parks on rooftops” and stop parking garages from popping up all over town. Nichols quoted Lindsay as saying: “I believe in the fundamental good faith and reasonableness of our citizens, if we deal openly and fairly with them. There are over-riding city needs that have to take precedence over particular local needs and I believe local communities will accept these.” Nichols commented: “This may be a bit naive and it may be tempered by direct contact with original sin, but it is vastly better than the cynical and sly government we have had in City Hall in the past decade.”

A long Voice editorial called Lindsay “a man of possibility,” “a seeker who values creativity,” and casually observed that Lindsay is “a fallible man, but an open man.” Either way, Lindsay was the only man, and Village Democratic District Leaders Ed Koch and Carol Greitzer risked their party offices to back Republican Lindsay. Eight years later Koch would say that “Lindsay couldn’t be elected dog-catcher in this town,” but in 1965 the sky was clear, original sin had been atoned, and John Lindsay become mayor of New York.

Something happened. Something bad. Whatever it was, we shouldn’t have been too surprised. It’s easy to forget that when the Christians walked into the Coliseum, the lions ate them. Mike Quill of the TWU got the first chomp at John Lindsay’s prime beef. A transit strike crippled New York for two weeks. Lindsay came through with his promise to install a Civilian Complaint Review Board to keep an eye on police brutality, but he under-estimated the opposition and lost both a referendum and police loyalty.

By the end of his first summer in City Hall, it was apparent that something had gone wrong. In the September 1, 1966, Voice, Jack Newfield used an “Old Man and the Sea” analogy to picture Lindsay as a fisherman who had hooked the big one but was now seeing his success ripped to pieces by the sharks. Newfield praised Lindsay for initiating 11 low-income housing projects in white middle-class areas of the Bronx and Queens, and liked most of the Mayor’s appointments, especially “Moerdler in housing, Leary in police, and McGrath in prisons.” But Newfield sensed that there was something inherently alienated in John Lindsay, that he was “not in touch with his deepest feelings or his unconscious.” Newfield said Lindsay was not introspective, and was “too stiff, too repressed, too untouched by personal pain or grief to discover those secret inner resources that propelled FDR and John Kennedy to the Presidency.”

A week later Carol Greitzer, who had nearly been drummed out of the Democratic Party for supporting Lindsay, took a bite at the Mayor. Lindsay was caving in on his opposition to parking garages and was silent on the Pan Am heliport, which he had opposed as a congressman. There is “no aura of open-mindedness” in his administration, Greitzer noted. The Mayor acts in haste and has “no inclination for the balancing act.” “The dashing sometimes creative Lindsay who captured the imagination of New Yorkers is no longer visible,” Greizter complained.

But it was too late. Lindsay was loose. In 1967 Newfield pegged Lindsay as an emerging national figure, and although the Mayor still lacked “a resonant dimension” he seemed, in the face of criticism from Paul Fino, Frank O’Connor, Robert Low, and Vito Battista, to resemble “Pericles defending Athens against the barbarians at the gate.”

Which explains why Lindsay was re-elected in 1969. Norman Mailer had dropped off the Lindsay train, and made a try for mayor himself. Mailer called new York after four years of Lindsay a “cancer and leprosy ward that has infected the rest of the country.” Michael Harrington was sticking with Lindsay because “there are more pros than cons.” A Voice editorial settled on Lindsay as “the least of three evils,” and he became a minority mayor. It must have seemed like a mandate from masochists, because Lindsay, with the help of a squad of semi-honest, ambitious incompetents, went haywire.

Mason Hillary, in a 1971 Voice article, pointed out that Lindsay — who in 1965 had called government committees an easy way out for a “weak and gutless administrator” — had himself appointed 134 committees since taking office. Meanwhile, Jack Newfield followed Lindsay around the country, patiently raking through the ashes of Lindsay’s accomplishments, looking for a spark, giving the Mayor every chance to be somebody. Newfield finally had to conclude that Lindsay lacked judgment, and the most recent entry under “Lindsay” in The Voice article index is a Newfield piece entitled “Lindsay’s Latest Blunder.” Mary Nichols, in a memorable display of what nostalgia can do to desperate people, asked in 1971: “Bob Wagner, Where Are You Now That We Need You?”

A more detailed analysis of recent Voice opinion of Mayor Lindsay is not required. De mortuis nil nisi bonum. John Lindsay spoke for parts of the city and the city came apart. He failed to see that over-riding needs are always local. He meant well. It’s just that John Lindsay is a creature of the air, a man who descends into Milwaukee from the clouds to sow visions of a new tomorrow, he is a prophet of parks on rooftops, of skyboxes, of hydrofoils which lift us from the water while they take us to the sun. He could walk on air. The people he tried to lead couldn’t. When John Lindsay sinks into obscurity, he will sink up.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 20, 2011


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