“New York City needs, and must have, a change. It must change completely in all of its institutions from top to bottom.”—CANDIDATE JOHN LINDSAY, a week before his election as mayor.
Lindsay is often called “the Republican Kennedy.” There is some resemblance. Like the late President, he is forever tilting with a lethargic bureaucracy, trying to impart to it some of his own dash and sense of urgency. Kennedy tried, but soon abandoned, the experiment of sitting in on a State Department staff meeting and startling middle-echelon officials by telephoning them to ask their opinions. So Lindsay pops up in some neglected corner of the metropolis, holds cabinet meetings in a different department headquarters each week (one was held in June in the vast new garage of the Sanitation Department), and leads a crew of volunteers to clean up the debris on Welfare Island.
Battle-hardened alumni of government service — and there are plenty of survivors of the Democratic establishment that governed the city for 20 years until last January 1—are convinced that the mayor’s interventions serve no purpose more useful than personal publicity. “Any day now Lindsay is going to realize the campaign is over and get down to governing the city,” a former aide to retired Mayor Robert F. Wagner remarked recently. At the outset, most working reporters shared this skepticism. If Lindsay was really “cleaner than clean” and going to perform all these prodigious achievements, why then, let’s watch him perform a miracle. A reform administration with high moral pretensions is judged by higher standards than one that is relaxed and frankly political. Every time John Lindsay appointed another Republican it was noted in news stories, since this is supposed to be a “fusion,” nonpartisan administration. (Although Lindsay ignores politics in filling sensitive jobs such as police commissioner, it is estimated that 80 percent of his appointees have been Republicans.) When a young woman photographer who was taking pictures for the mayor’s office turned out to be on the antipoverty payroll, the press made it a 24-hour sensation. Newspapermen wrote stories about appalling conditions in the hospitals and other municipal institutions - the same conditions that Candidate Lindsay had deplored—and pointed out that no change had taken place.
As a congressman and a candidate, Lindsay had always had a good press. He is extremely press conscious, almost as much as John Kennedy was, and he wants reporters to like him and to write sympathetically. Any story that contradicted a press release was regarded as a stab in back. The reporters muttered about manipulation and even outright lies.
The inexperience of Woody Klein, the mayor’s press secretary, contributed to the tension. Klein was a brilliant investigative reporter on city affairs for the old World-Telegram & Sun, but a successful press spokesman has to learn softer arts. He has to placate where once he probed. But Klein is now settling into his job like an old pro. The regulars on the City Hall beat are developing a personal rapport with “John” and some reliable sources among his entourage.
When press relations were at their worst last winter and early spring, the principal target of the flak was Robert Price, Lindsay’s confidant, campaign manager, policy adviser, chief negotiator and deputy mayor.
“Isn’t it part of your job to be the fall guy for the mayor?” an editor asked Price.
“I’ll have to check. I don’t think it’s in the city charter,” Price deadpanned.
Price, only 33, is a fantastically hard worker. He and Lindsay regularly put in 16-hour days, every day in the week. They both flog themselves and everyone else to new peaks of effort. But, in every other respect, they differ. Where Lindsay is tall, handsome, well built. Price is of medium height, dark-complexioned, and, notwithstanding an heroic diet, pudgy. Lindsay talks of ideals; Price of deals. Politicians don’t know quite what to make of Lindsay; he is stiff-necked, imperious, idealistic, a reformer in Ivy League clothes. Price they regard as one of their own—a Jewish boy from the Bronx who grew up in modest circumstances (his father is now an efficiency expert for a shirt manufacturer) and went to law school and wants to be a millionaire. Price loves the intricacies of politics the way baseball addicts love old batting averages. His intensity and brusqueness have gained him a reputation as the kind of man who hangs up on telephone conversations so as not to waste time saying goodbye. But Price has a less wintry side and a gift for repartee. Asked whether Governor Rockefeller, whose brother David is chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank, had objected to the mayor’s proposal for a city tax on bank income. Price replied, “There was no trouble. We just agreed to exempt the Chase.”
During the interregnum between election and taking office, Lindsay was fond of wondering aloud why service in the city government can’t be made as exciting as a job in Washington. “I want young guys to feel that being a deputy commissioner is as attractive, as big a challenge, as assistant secretary of state.” A more sobersided type might have realized that there are several differences, a simple one being that after the little flurry of his swearing-in, a deputy commissioner never makes the newspapers again, unless he’s indicted. If Lindsay has found he cannot compete with Washington on the glamour-and-prestige front, he has nevertheless succeeded in recruiting a strong group of top officials. He persuaded Mitchell Ginsberg, the dean of Columbia University’s School of Social Work, to accept the thankless job of welfare commissioner. The corporation counsel, the city’s chief lawyer, is J. Lee Rankin, who served as Solicitor General under Eisenhower and who took a steep cut in income by leaving his corporate practice. Thomas Hoving, a tireless innovator as park commissioner, was formerly curator of The Cloisters; Austin Heller was recruited from the public health service to lead an invigorated campaign against air pollution; and George McGrath, the new corrections commissioner, formerly headed the prison system in Massachusetts.
On one critical front, the Police Department, Lindsay’s performance has been particularly impressive. In order to reassure the public that the bad old days of Tammany manipulation of the police were not coming back, the Democrats, once restored to power in 1945 after LaGuardia’s retirement, asserted the principle that even the mayor should not interfere in the department’s affairs once he had appointed the commissioner.
When Wagner’s next-to-last police commissioner retired a year ago, he expressed special gratification that Wagner had called him on his direct telephone line from City Hall only twice.
But one by-product of the no-interference principle was the perpetuation of an Irish establishment in the top levels, of the police force. Lindsay has challenged this Irish barony in behalf of the city’s two fastest-growing and most disadvantaged minorities, the 1.1 million Negroes and the 730,000 Puerto Ricans. Out of 27,000 policemen, there were only 300 Puerto Ricans. Negro representation in the lower ranks was much higher, but of 79 precinct commanders only one was a Negro. Three of some 400 police captains were Negro. Both minorities assert they are victims of police brutality and have been clamoring for a civilian board to review such charges. But the police, in the ranks and in the Irish-dominated hierarchy, are united in their fierce opposition to any such board.
In search of a new commissioner, Lindsay went outside the city to pick Howard Leary, the commissioner in Philadelphia who had worked amicably with a civilian review board there. Of Irish ancestry (some traditions can’t be completely escaped), Leary appointed a
Jewish officer as his top deputy and a Negro officer as the next highest officer, and Lindsay made plain to these new appointees that he wants a more intensive recruitment campaign among minorities. He also wants many more Negro police in Harlem and other ghettoes, where white policemen who live far away in Queens or the Bronx have seemed like an occupying force. The mayor has moved ahead on his campaign pledge to put the existing three-man departmental review board under outside control by adding four civilian members.
These changes prompted a few top officers to retire and aroused muttering in police ranks. Several ex-commissioners raised the familiar cry of “political interference,” but after a few weeks the uproar died away.
Where the Mayor Has Authority
On questions that are wholly or primarily within his discretion, Lindsay has set forth sensible new policy. He blocked Huntington Hartford’s long-standing plan to build a restaurant in Central Park and vetoed projected garages and other intrusions which park conservationists had protested in vain in the Wagner era. He has made a modest start on reclaiming the city from the automobile by banning cars from Central Park from 6 a.m. to noon on Sundays, reserving those hours for cyclists and walkers. He killed Robert Moses’ plan to build a Chinese wall known as the 30th Street elevated expressway across the width of Manhattan, although this road may still be built below street level. On his instructions, the police have virtually ceased the entrapment of homosexuals and prostitutes. He has challenged the Port of New York Authority, which has earned a reputation for efficiency and high-handness. In an effort to get better financial terms for the city, he has temporarily blocked the huge World Trade Center (two 100-story skyscrapers and related buildings) proposed by the Authority.
It is too early to tell, but Lindsay may have the guts and stamina to impose orderly planning on the green remnants of Staten Island. The last big stretch of underdeveloped land within the city, Staten Island should have been developed according to a careful plan when the new Verrazzano Bridge to Brooklyn opened it up for easy access two years ago. The Planning Commission worked up such a plan, but the Wagner administration would not fight for it against the pressures of the fast-buck operators. Most of the island has been desecrated by thousands of small, shoddily-built matchbox houses, but there are still sizable tracts of land that can be saved if the municipal authorities take preventive action this year.
Housing, Jobs, Taxes
The worst problems of the city, however, do not lie wholly or largely within the mayor’s sphere of decision. Housing, unemployment and taxes are New York’s make-or-break challenges. To make much headway on the first two, Lindsay will need great amounts of federal financial help and the cooperation of a balky, often uncomprehending legislature. As for taxes, he has won a victory in principle (to which I shall refer later), but he will have to win it again next year—and probably every year - since New York City’s $4.3 billion budget is likely to double over the next decade.
New York has 35,000 rotting tenements that house nearly half a million people. Twice that number live in structures that are salvageable but substandard. Candidate Lindsay promised to launch a $2 billion housing program, to “build 160,000 new units of low and middle income housing.” There is little money in sight to redeem the promise. In the same election in which he was chosen, the voters of the state rejected bond issues for low- and middle-income housing. President Johnson’s “demonstration cities” program is in deep trouble in Congress. The city has no uncommitted financial resources to throw into the struggle against slums.
Lindsay wheedled a grant out of the Ford Foundation to finance a study of the city’s housing and urban renewal programs by Edward Logue, the tough housing expert from New Haven and more recently Boston. Logue believes that a czar is essential to impose an overall plan on the often contradictory slum clearance and renewal programs. It is doubtful, however, whether Lindsay can consolidate authority to this extent. In so doing, he would be disturbing every vested political, bureaucratic and financial interest.
Operating on a limited sector of the housing front is 31-year-old Buildings Commissioner Charles Moerdler, a bright star of the new administration. Corruption has been endemic among building inspectors for generations. Moerdler brings to the cleansing of this Augean stable the dedication of a zealot and the instincts of a relentless tyrant. Among his subordinates, whom he has put into uniform (“It is a little harder to take a bribe in a bar or hang around a racetrack if one is wearing a uniform.”), Moerdler is easily the most disliked commissioner in the city government. His determination seems proof against all setbacks or embarrassments, even the disclosure that his father-in-law is a slum landlord. “Unemployment” is shorthand for poverty, a mismatch of skills and jobs (a surplus of common laborers cannot relieve the shortage of secretaries), and the social disorganization of a network of ghettoes. The Wagner administration’s antipoverty program was wretchedly run, with three rival and overlapping agencies approving programs and supposedly doling out money. Here, too, Lindsay has turned to the Ford Foundation for help. A Ford grant has financed a lengthy study by Mitchell “Mike” Sviridoff, the successful chief of New Haven’s antipoverty operations. Sviridoff wants to centralize all policy-making in a new Human Resources Administration but to decentralize operations through a chain of one-stop employment centers. These centers would seek out the unemployed in each neighborhood and administer a comprehensive manpower program including testing, job counseling, training, work experience programs and aggressive follow-up once a worker is placed in a job. These and related functions are now scattered among 30 different public and private agencies.
Sviridoff’s ideas worked brilliantly in New Haven, but New York has 45 times as many people. There is a sullen apathy, a depth of degradation in Harlem that is unknown in smaller cities. Mayor Richard Lee in New Haven can reach the natural leaders of his city’s relatively small Negro community in a way that Mayor Lindsay cannot cut across the Adam Clayton Powell machine and rival power structures in Harlem. After only six months, Lindsay has barely begun on what may be the task of decades.
The tax fight, the third in Lindsay’s lawful trinity, has provided abundant evidence of his stubbornness. He inherited numerous debts and a rising curve of municipal expenditures and obligations. During the previous 10 years, although the city’s population actually declined slightly, its annual budget climbed 125 percent to $3.8 billion, second only to the federal government in the nation. Real estate taxes had gone up by 75 percent, and business and sales taxes had more than doubled. In his final year, Wagner had to seek the state legislature’s permission to resort for the first time to short-term borrowing to meet $256 million of this year’s expenses. “A bad loan is better than a good tax,” Wagner said in the Micawberish style that drove his critics wild. To close this widening gap between income and expenses, Wagner sought a constitutional amendment that would enable the city to raise the real estate tax above the existing limit. Last year’s Democratic-controlled legislature consented, but there was no certainty that this year’s legislature, under divided political control, would oblige with the necessary second passage, or that the voters would approve in a referendum.
Lindsay increased the city budget by $500 million and asked for the equivalent in additional taxes. He proposed a graduated city income tax covering residents and commuters alike at a rate one-half that of the state’s tax, and also a 50 percent jump in the tax on the sale of shares on the New York Stock Exchange. After months of maneuvering, bluffing and cries of outrage, the tax question was resolved at 4 a.m. on June 16 following three days and nights of a marathon bargaining session of city and state leaders. Lindsay wound up with only $283 million in new taxes, somewhat more than half of what he had asked for. The graduated income tax was set at one-fifth rather than one-half of the state rate, and then only for city residents. Commuters are to pay a tax on their earnings (not including their rents, dividends, capital gains and other income). Their tax is not to be graduated, but the effect is much the same since the size of their exemptions declines as their income rises. In principle if not in disposable cash, this settlement is a victory for Lindsay. Almost no other city has a graduated personal income tax; most cities which have anything of this type have a flat payroll tax that is regressive. Moreover, the settlement established the principle that commuters have to bear some share in the cost of running the “core city” off which they make their living.
During the tax struggle, Lindsay’s tactics were criticized. It was suggested that he would have achieved more had he consulted privately with the legislative leaders before setting forth his demands publicly. He was attacked for refusing a deal suggested by Governor Rockefeller that would have brought substantially more revenue but would have included a payroll tax. On balance, Lindsay probably followed the right strategy; some battles are best won by fighting them through to a finish, in the open. In view of Rockefeller’s weakened political position, the election year fears of a tax rise that gripped the legislators, and the obdurate opposition to any commuter tax by the suburban members of the Republican-controlled state Senate, Lindsay did about as well as could be expected. And by his fierce resistance to the payroll tax (which further endeared him to the Liberal Party) and his cool refusal to be bluffed by Stock Exchange threats to pull out of the city in retaliation for the higher tax on stock transfers, Lindsay showed that he is not in guiding strings to the business community, even though its members supplied most of his $2 million campaign fund last year.
Stubbed Toe Over Transit
Lindsay’s biggest failure was certainly his mismanagement of the transit strike. For 20 years, a strike “crisis” on the city-owned subways has been a regular feature of the week between Christmas and New Year’s. The late Mike Quill was always the star of this pantomime. He made bad faces, shouted ugly threats, waved his Irish blackthorn stick, and generally did his histrionic best to make the city shake and quiver. The mayor, regardless of his identity, regularly played straight man, pleading municipal poverty and wringing his hands in seeming despair as zero hour approached. But these little dramas always ended with a last-minute. New Year’s Eve settlement—at a figure far below Quill’s public demand.
Lindsay apparently believed that if he were firm. Quill would not dare call a strike and that if Quill did dare, the mayor could defeat him by rallying the city to get along without a transit system. As a result, the Lindsay administration made its debut on New Year’s Day with the threat of a subway strike turned into a dreary reality.
There is little doubt that Lindsay last December could have called in labor attorney Theodore Kheel (whose services he eventually enlisted anyway) and said something like this: “I want you to be my man in these transit talks. Try to hold the price to the city down as much as possible, but find out Mike’s ultimate terms and make a deal. If he wants an all-night bargaining session on New Year’s Eve or even a quickie, five-hour strike, tell him I’ll go along.” There would then have been no transit strike and the final wage package would have been no more and probably less than what the city finally granted. But to Lindsay, this approach seemed like political fixing rather than collective bargaining as he envisaged it (having never experienced it).
Once the strike began, many rank-and-file citizens, and not all of them in the middle or upper class, began to growl demands for a crackdown. Why not put the strikers in jail? Why not mobilize the National Guard to run the subways? Or at least drive the buses? Where was the spirit of Calvin Coolidge who broke the Boston police strike with an epigram? Only Lindsay’s innate good sense saved him. Yet if there is a middle way in strikes of public employees between Robert Wagner and Calvin Coolidge, Lindsay hasn’t found it. He still talks hopefully of a “more scientific approach” and of “genuine collective bargaining,” but as the public health nurses, the garbage collectors, and all the other municipal unions come trooping in to bludgeon him with pay demands, he speaks with less optimism.
From the debacle of the subway strike, the Lindsay administration could only move up. It has gained in experience and confidence, and if Lindsay has not revolutionized New York, he has revived its morale. And to the grace notes of his style as a leader, he adds the priceless asset of luck: after five years of drought, this spring the rains came and he was able to lift most of the water restrictions. If he can make Albany and Washington shower down the tax dollars in comparable abundance, John Lindsay might become one of the great political rainmakers.
This article originally ran in the July 16, 1966 issue of the magazine.