Vincent Cannato, author of The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York

May 10th, 2003

When liberal Republican John Lindsay was elected mayor of New York in 1965, political observers described him as a White Knight, the best hope for a stagnant and troubled city.  A reformer with movie-star looks, Lindsay brought glamour and hope to City Hall.  At the height of his appeal, leading politicians from both parties, including Nelson Rockefeller and Robert Kennedy, feared Lindsay’s growing popularity.  Some even pegged him for the White House.

After defeating incumbent Robert Wagner, Lindsay vowed to wrestle control of the city from its “power brokers” and revitalize New York into “Fun City.” Lindsay’s idealistic agenda and charismatic presence made him the toast of New York.

But from his first day in office, Lindsay faced one battle after another.  Throughout his tenure, New York experienced an upheaval that reflected the state of the nation during this turbulent era.  Civil rights, community control of schools, student unrest at Columbia University, urban development, and antiwar rallies all posed major political dilemmas.

By the end of his second term as mayor, Lindsay was fatigued and disillusioned, his political career devoid of its early promise, a man rendered as one pundit described an “exile” in his own city.#

Vincent Cannato, author of The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and his Struggle to Save New York, talks with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita about Lindsay and how his ideas impacted New York and his own political fortunes.






photo NYT Pictures

The city’s inadequate response to the snowstorm of February, 1969, damaged John Lindsay’s reputation more than any event during his two terms as mayor of New York  Two days following the storm that crippled the city, Lindsay dejectedly walks along the streets of a clogged Queens neighborhood.


Saxophonist Sonny Stitt plays Autumn In New York


JJM  How did America’s fascination with John Kennedy open the door for John Lindsay?

VC  The great Camelot mystique of the early sixties that was about youth and fresh ideas invigorated American politics — especially after the Eisenhower years — and captured the imagination of the country. Lindsay really tapped into that. He was a congressman during the Kennedy years and didn’t run for mayor until after Kennedy’s assassination, but there was still a lingering aura of Camelot that Lindsay successfully tapped into. During this era, idealism was prevalent. Cynicism had not yet set in, the quagmire of Vietnam was still in the distance, the Civil Rights Act was signed, and we had not quite got into black power and other radical ideas. There was a window of opportunity for idealism and for reviving Camelot that Lindsay tried to grab hold of.

JJM So, Lindsay’s charismatic appeal connected him to Kennedy in some way.

VC  Yes. There were not a lot of similarities but there are some. They both had strong, assertive and smart wives, with big families and young children. They were energetic World War II veterans, who in the sixties were the young generation who had just won the war and were now reaching the age where they are taking power in the country. They each used the rhetoric of grand idealism, speaking of a better future.

JJM  Was he annoyed by these comparisons?

VC  He would sometimes publicly be annoyed, but I think deep down he probably wasn’t because overall it was a positive for him. As often as he might have rolled his eyes or sighed about the Kennedy comparison, it made for good politics.

JJM  A former Lindsay aide said, “I don’t think John has ever really been close to anyone in his life except his brothers and his wife. No one knows what really goes on in that mind.” What were his characteristics?

VC  Lindsay was somewhat aloof. Someone once said of him that he was attracted to older mentor types like U.S. attorney general Herb Brownell, as well as to younger acolytes, especially his young twenty-something aides who looked up to and worshipped him. But he always had problems with people his own age. In some ways he was sort of like Al Gore, whose closest aides are his wife and daughters. Lindsay’s closest aides were his wife and brothers. The circle of trust did not go much beyond family. So, he looked up to his older mentors, and with admiration at his younger aides. He didn’t have many people his own age that he could rely on for advice.

JJM  What was the basis for his being a member of the Republican Party?

VC  It was quite natural for someone with his background and social class — and being from Manhattan — to be a Republican. This was the era of liberal Republicanism, when the Republican Party was the domain of people like Nelson Rockefeller, and other wealthy “Northeastern types.” So, it was quite natural for him to be a Republican. In New York, it also meant that you were opposed to the Tammany Hall machine and the corrupt Democratic machine politics that dominated the city. Clearly one of Lindsay’s idols was Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, whom Lindsay had gone to meet as a very young child. LaGuardia was a liberal New-Dealer but who was Republican, fighting against the machine of Tammany Hall.

LaGuardia became an elected Republican in a Democratic city by running as a fusion candidate. This idea of fusion was picked up by Lindsay in 1965. It was possible to get elected as a Republican by fusing together different groups of people in a non-partisan way, who were all angry at the Democratic machine. Lindsay didn’t run as a partisan Republican, nor did LaGuardia. They ran as non-partisans. A famous line of LaGuardia’s, “There is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage,” is a great example of how you run as a Republican in a city that is dominated by the Democratic Party.

JJM  As a congressman, what role did Lindsay play in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act?

VC  In many ways, Lindsay was a real outcast in Congress. He was a minority within a minority. He was a Republican in a Congress dominated by the Democrats, and he was a liberal Republican in a party that was growing increasingly conservative. As a Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, he played a big role in writing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which most Republicans in Congress voted for. He was sitting in the first or second row when Lyndon Johnson signed the bill, and was seen as a leading voice in the Republican Party in favor of civil rights.

JJM  In 1966, US News and World Report argued that life in New York “had tended to become more and more unsettled, uncomfortable and downright dangerous, less and less pleasant.” What conditions existed in New York that led to Lindsay’s election?

VC  Yes, how does a Republican get elected in a Democratic city? It has got to be as a result of anger and resentment against the Democratic Party and the status quo. There was a Democrat in City Hall for twenty years, and there was an increasing feeling that by 1964, many things had gone awry. Crime was going up, there were fiscal shenanigans by Mayor Robert Wagner toward the end of his career, a sense that the city was dirtier and that poverty was increasing. There was a general unease with the way things were going in the city. The city had also been losing population in the fifties and sixties. You can now look back and really see the great demographic shift that was taking place. During the fifties, the city lost close to one million middle- class whites. They were replaced by a large influx of mostly poor minorities. This really changed the demographics of the city, in terms of ethnicity and race as well as the city’s socio-economic status. The city grew darker and it grew poorer. There was an unease settling in the city about these great changes.

JJM  And these changes set into motion the “northern civil rights movement,” which included the issues of police treatment of minorities, open housing laws and busing of school children.

VC  Yes, the big issues in New York were education reform and police brutality.

JJM  Did he decide to run for mayor because he wanted to address these challenges, or did he run because he couldn’t run for the Senate or the Governor’s office at the time?

VC  I don’t think there was any kind of deep political calculation going on. While there was really no other office for him to run for since the Senate seats were out of reach and because Rockefeller was entrenched as Governor, he ran for mayor in 1965 really and truly to save the city. He was sort of dragged into running in some ways, because people were asking him to come and save the city, that the city needs you, that the city can’t afford four more years of Democratic rule. So, he ran as a candidate who was going to completely reform and improve the city.

JJM  What did he believe New York’s biggest problem to be at that point?

VC  Everything. In 1965, the New York Herald Tribune ran a series called “City in Crisis,” which was designed to look at the problems of the city. They reported on problems found in every aspect of society, from air pollution to crime to discrimination to fiscal problems, to potholes — you name it. Today, we are much more cynical, and we know how hard it is to fix these problems and to change society. Back then, however, Lindsay took all these challenges on.

JJM  How did the objectives of the northern civil rights movement, which Lindsay was so strongly in favor of, clash with those of the police?

VC  That comes down to the issue of the Civilian Review Board, which would have instituted an independent board to monitor cases of police brutality. This had become an issue in the late fifties and early sixties, and Lindsay grabbed on to it. If he was going to be mayor, he was going to have an independent civilian review board that would judge cases of police misconduct. It was largely a civil rights issue, because when you talk about police mistreatment of civilians you are primarily talking about the mistreatment of blacks. So, he runs for mayor on this. It was a perfectly natural civil rights issue, but what it gets translated into, at a time when crime rates are rising, is an “anti police” issue. It was interpreted that Lindsay was more concerned about issues of police brutality than he was about crime. There was a polarization among people who saw this as a continuation of the civil rights movement, and those who felt the concern should be about the rising crime rate and not about cases of police brutality.

JJM  And Lindsay was concerned about preventing the sort of rioting that was occurring in Los Angeles, Detroit, and other cities. Perhaps he erred on the side of appeasing minorities, which cost him with the police. As the journalist Jack Newfield wrote concerning this, “What it all comes down to in the here and now is that Lindsay gets cheered in Harlem and Berkeley and cursed by taxi drivers and cops.”

VC  Yes, that is the division right there. When the civil rights movement goes north, it is no longer this crystal clear “black versus white,” “good versus evil,” clear-cut moral issue of going after Jim Crow. As it moves north it gets so much more complicated, and I don’t think Lindsay ever saw how complex these other issues were. There was the issue of crime, but also of class, where people like taxi drivers, plumbers, electricians, construction workers — themselves only barely in the middle class — didn’t really have solid footing economically. These were the people who stood to lose out on the Civilian Review Board, because they felt that their safety was being put into jeopardy. Also, it was feared that open housing laws would hurt property values for homeowners who had only a token hold on the middle class. So, the issue cut across racial lines, but also economic lines. Wealthy Manhattan-ites, who were more insulated from some of these social issues, were very much supportive of civil rights, and were very much in favor the Civilian Review Board and education reform as long as they were not affected adversely by them. It created a resentment among many of those people who felt they were on the front lines of these issues, and it further divided the races, in a way.

JJM  Describe what “dissensus politics” is?

VC  This was a popular idea of the mid to late sixties, that in order to affect radical change in society, things needed to be stirred up. You needed to have protest and you needed to have people speaking out — not quite violently — but you needed to highlight and make clear the divisions. So, you get groups like the National Welfare Rights Organization having sit-ins at welfare department offices to put a spotlight on the issue of welfare, and to get society to deal with it. Unfortunately, these protests drove a wedge in society.    

JJM The white counterculture added to the mix of this dissensus politics, didn’t it?

VC  Yes, although they were different organizations and different groups of people, they were interwoven together. When you combine the effects of all of them, it added to the polarization of society. We used to think of the sixties as being a radical decade, but in reality it was an era of polarization where two sides were pushed apart. Everything from the war in Vietnam to the counterculture, to civil rights and black power were pushing each side further apart, and Lindsay was the guy attempting to straddle both sides. As the division between them got wider, he finally had to decide which side to support. At this point he began speaking out against the war in Vietnam and outwardly sympathized with the counterculture, even though he himself is a pretty square, clean cut Yale graduate with a wife and kids. There was nothing countercultural about Lindsay, but he sympathized with the student protestors and felt they were saying something that needed to be listened to.

JJM  He embraced the country’s youth rebellion, and you could say that he blamed the white middle class for blocking school reform as well.

VC  The issue of Ocean Hill-Brownsville and school reform became a huge question. How does one integrate a northern  urban school system? The terrible irony is that in 2003 we are still talking about the same issue. There weren’t laws that said blacks should attend this school or that school, it was in residential patterns, where blacks and whites lived. At the same time, more and more whites were leaving the public school system for either the suburbs or for a private parochial school. These factors made the integration of the races even harder. So, from the time of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in the mid fifties, New York tried to deal with the issue of how to better integrate their schools. None of their plans were working. By the early sixties, there was a feeling among some in the black community that integration was not going to happen, and that they needed to take control of their own schools. Thus, there was the rise of a community control movement.

JJM  And black militants came in and influenced education reform.

VC  Yes. That was an unfortunate side-effect, that their interest in having control over the curriculum coincided with a greater trend toward Afrocentricity. While part of that is good — to teach people about their heritage and their culture — there was a down side to some of that as well. In the Brownsville area especially, some teachers were criticized for being anti-white or anti- Semitic, and it dissolved into a kind of anarchy. As the militants ratcheted up the rhetoric, more and more whites were saying that, while they support the civil rights movement, this is where I draw the line. It caused a sort of polarization. You still see it today. Al Sharpton, a child of this era, is a great example. Most of his politics were learned from this time, and his actions are perfect examples of dissensus politics. He thrives on dividing, and learned that you get ahead through confrontation.

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