Daniel L. Feldman

John V. Lindsay

In NYC Politics on February 25, 2011 at 9:41 am

After the annus horribilus of 1968, with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and then the incredibly depressing electoral victory of Richard Nixon, many people searched almost desperately for a liberal politician charismatic enough to win a national election. Liberals and intellectuals – of course the two groups are not synonymous, but that might not have occurred to us at the time – had hoped, with some reason, that Robert Kennedy would restore the Camelot that our memories’ imagination had fashioned when we looked back to JFK’s short reign. The great columnist Murray Kempton spoke for us when he wrote, after Nixon’s victory, “Richard Nixon was just elected president by every town in this country too small to have a bookstore.”

We found John V. Lindsay. Tall, handsome, and charming, many voters reacted to him the way my mother had reacted to JFK. Years later, when I represented parts of southern Brooklyn in the Legislature, my Democratic district leader told me how the City, early in the Lindsay administration, had opened a center for developmentally disabled children in Manhattan Beach, the wealthiest part of the district. Dozens of neighborhood matrons picketed the small center, carrying signs some of which read “Down with Lindsay.” Then Lindsay appeared. As he approached the women, smiling, one by one the signs gradually came down, amidst murmurs of “he’s so handsome!” The center served developmentally disabled children at that location for decades thereafter.

It wasn’t just New York City. Between my junior and senior years in high school, when I attended the NSF program at the Mount Herman School in Massachusetts, fellow students, children of liberal Republican families in the Midwest, told me how their parents looked to Lindsay as the last best hope of liberal Republicanism. (Maybe he was: he certainly had no apparent successor in that role.)

So some of the Urban Fellowship Program’s allure was the opportunity it gave top students to be part of this exciting new Camelot. Significantly, Lindsay’s special persona also allowed reform Democrats like me to make a unique exception; we would not otherwise have dreamt of supporting a Republican. Although in 1969 Lindsay had lost the Republican nomination and was running as a Liberal and Independent, he remained a registered Republican until 1971. (Some of us would not even have supported Jacob Javits, New York’s liberal Jewish Republican U.S. Senator from 1957 through 1980.)

When the 1969 mayoral race began, Lindsay was losing. His 1965 campaign used the slogan, “He is fresh and everyone else is tired.” But Lindsay suffered serious setbacks in his first term. Lindsay was blamed, with some justice, for the inordinate length of the 1966 transit strike. The 1968 teachers’ strike pitted many Jewish and Italian-American teachers against emerging militant black community leaders. In that context, Lindsay’s perceived sympathy for the interests of the minority communities turned many former liberals against him. His Sanitation Department notoriously failed to remove the snow from Queens in a timely fashion in February 1969. A 1968 Mad Magazine issue, reflecting the political reality in 1969, and the insulting digs leveled at Lindsay, came up a with new slogan: “He is tired and everyone else is fresh.” (If any non-New Yorkers are reading this, “fresh” in that context in New York-ese means rude.)

Mario Procaccino had won the Democratic nomination. Procaccino played to the rising racial fears of white New Yorkers. Although he did attempt to reassure black voters on one occasion, he engaged in an unfortunate choice of words, telling his audience that “My heart is as black as yours.” While Procaccino was in fact not the fool that his malaprops suggested (he was also said to have remarked, in an attempt to praise someone, that “he grows on you – like cancer”) , to me he represented the kind of regular Democrat that reformers had to oppose. (Staten Island State Senator John Marchi, who defeated Lindsay for the Republican nomination in 1969, was at that time extremely conservative. Decades later I learned to admire him as a legitimate intellectual and a man of principle.) Reform Democrats throughout New York City abandoned the Democratic nominee, just as I did.

For much of 1969, Lindsay was losing to Procaccino. Jimmy Breslin, in a New York Magazine article, explained what was wrong with the Lindsay campaign. He wrote something like this: “This Upper West Side Democratic district leader, this cosmopolitan liberal, stood in front of a map of New York City in the old De Pinna store on 52nd and Fifth, the Lindsay campaign headquarters, and said, ‘Now let me see – which one is Queens?’” Breslin’s point was while the Lindsay campaign was effectively winning support from Manhattan liberals and reformers, it barely seemed aware of the very different voters in the outer boroughs. For Lindsay to win, he would need at least a hefty percentage of such voters, and at that point in the campaign season, he wasn’t getting them.  Though Breslin didn’t identify the reform Democratic leader, he seemed to be picking on Ronnie Eldridge, a very kind and bright district leader who was a prominent supporter of Lindsay’s and became a Special Assistant to him after the election. (If so the story probably reflected Breslin’s occasional penchant for exaggeration.) Thirty-five years later I saw Breslin at some kind of civic event. I reminded him of the comment, and asked him, “Is it not true that about ten years later you married that district leader?” He gave me a big smile, said “F— you!” and walked away.

At that point in 1969, though, Breslin was certainly right that the Lindsay campaign needed help. I was happy to oblige.

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