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Jewish World Review Dec. 26, 2000 / 29 Kislev 5761

Philip Terzian

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Consumer Reports

Remembering Comet Lindsay -- LATE ONE EVENING, in the winter of 1966, Ed McMahon introduced The Tonight Show in his usual fashion: "Hee-eere's Johnny!" he exclaimed, as the stage curtains parted. But instead of Johnny Carson, out strode the new mayor of New York, 45-year-old John V. Lindsay. His delivery was slightly stilted, and the jokes no better than average; but viewers got the impression that a star, perhaps even a future president, had been born.

Lindsay was a tall, strikingly handsome, patrician Republican with a WASPish self-confidence not seen in New York politics since the days of Franklin Roosevelt. He had been elected mayor just a few months before in a memorable three-way race among a dreary Tammany Democrat (Abraham Beame) and William F. Buckley, Jr., editor of National Review. The Buckley candidacy was only a half-serious enterprise -- when asked what he would do if he won, the candidate responded, "Demand a recount!" -- but the collapse of the old Democratic machine was serious business. As Murray Kempton said of Lindsay, "He is fresh and everyone else is tired."

Lindsay's death the other day, in his eightieth year, reminds us how much has happened in the intervening decades. By the end of his first four-year term, New York politics had been turned upside-down. Not only was Lindsay denied renomination by his own Republican party (he ran on the Liberal ticket) but the Buckley-style challenge to his candidacy came from the Left: That was the year when Norman Mailer ran for mayor, and Jimmy Breslin for president of the City Council. To say that, in the America of 1969, things had fallen apart, the center was not holding, and mere anarchy was loosed upon the world, would be an understatement. Four years later Lindsay staggeredout of office, to be succeeded by -- Abraham Beame.

What happened? Well, obviously, the New York Republican party of Lindsay's youth had been transformed, and he not only formally became a Democrat in 1972, but ran for president as a Democrat that same year. Both gestures were disasters. Estranged from his old home, and an object of suspicion in his new surroundings, Lindsay's once-promising political career ended in anticlimax. Or something close to disgrace. The year he left office (1974) was not too long before New York City hovered on bankruptcy; and while Abe Beame paid the electoral price three years later, the bulk of the blame was showered on John Lindsay.

Lindsay was, essentially, a casualty of conventional wisdom. When he became mayor, the Great Society was in flood tide, and federal programs and cash were guaranteed to cure social ills. Having been greeted with a massive transit strike on the day he was sworn into office, Lindsay dedicated his years in office to giving New York's powerful public-employee unions everything they demanded -- and more -- to the detriment of New York's taxpaying residents. He proved singularly adept at funneling federal funds from Washington to the five boroughs, and jumped at the chance to play Father Bountiful.

"People would grab him and hold him and kiss him," recalled his housing authority chairman, Walter Washington, later the District of Columbia's first mayor-commissioner. "He would visit areas hardly any others would tend to visit -- the Lower East Side, Harlem and Brooklyn. And I saw people just trying to touch his garment .... He gave people a feeling of belonging and hope." One obituary tribute mentioned Lindsay's "palpable presence on the city streets, appearing in shirt sleeves, mingling with hippies and black and Hispanic residents with equal charm and naturalness."

The problem, of course, was that Lindsay's attention was effectively distracted from the bulk of his constituents, who were neither hippies nor black nor Hispanic. nd as we have since learned, some trillions of dollars later, an expanding welfare state is no substitute for economic opportunity or personal responsibility; and in fact, always make things worse. We have the benefit of hindsight, to be sure, and Lindsay was only following the experts' advice.

One of those experts, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has just retired from the Senate, full of age and honors. At about the time things were going sour for Lindsay, and New York was essentially governed by Vic Gotbaum, the local AFSCME boss, Moynihan had the good sense to get out of the social welfare business and turn his attention to foreign affairs. By the time Moynihan scraped into the U.S. Senate in 1976, poor Lindsay was exiled from New York politics, and Moynihan could beat the drum for his own discredited policies from the safety of the Senate chamber. When Lindsay died last week, forgotten and impoverished in Hilton Head, S.C., Moynihan surrendered his seat to another expert in social policy, Hillary Rodham Clinton. And the beat goes on.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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12/04/00: Downey behind bars
11/29/00: By any means necessary
11/16/00: Government sanctioned historical revisionism?
11/10/00: Breaking news: They don't know
11/09/00: Steve Allen: Smart TV
11/07/00: The November surprise
11/01/00: Take the Lieberman test
10/30/00: P.S. Don't tell Congress!
10/25/00: The election is close, but ...
10/23/00: King or jester?
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10/16/00: I like (fill in the blank)
10/12/00: Now comes the hard part
10/05/00: Good show, bad sports
10/02/00: It's a wonderful life?
09/28/00: Driving on America's Main Street
09/22/00: Preparing for a new administration
09/20/00: They've got a secret
09/18/00: Today, Dr. Laura. Tomorrow ...
09/12/00: What passes for knowledge
09/05/00: The catcher gets caught
08/31/00: A Golden Age that never was
08/28/00: Blame communism, not Russia
08/24/00: Social progress on one front, regression on the other
08/21/00: The beat goes awry
08/17/00: The unwelcome democrat

© 2000, The Providence Journal