Lindsay, A Man for Tomorrow
John V. Lindsay and the Silk Stocking Story
John V. Lindsay
Less than Meets the Eye
The most useful source of Congressman Lindsay’s present manifestation may be none of the above works but rather Professor Trilling’s celebrated essay on The Princess Casamassima. For Mr. Lindsay comes to us, now as never before or likely again, as the Young Man from the Provinces. Precision is hardly Mr. Parmentel’s concern in his recent article on Lindsay in Esquire; still he seems on the mark when he evokes his subject as “Scarsdale Galahad.” Mr. Lindsay springs up out of our pavements as that most alien of strangers, the white Episcopalian born here. And his situation is “as chancy as that of any questing knight of mediaeval romance.”
“Parsifal at the castle of the Fisher King,” Professor Trilling instructs us, “is not more uncertain about the right thing to do than the Young Man from the Provinces picking his perilous way through the irrationalities of the society into which he has been transported.”
Mr. Lindsay then summons up the memory of Hyacinth Robinson, which means that his special command on our interest is that he is sentient and aware of what is happening to him: “We care,” James says, “our curiosity and our sympathy care, comparatively little for what happens to the stupid, the coarse and the blind.”
Mr. Parmentel reports this judgment: “‘He’s such a nice guy that you can almost forgive him his shallowness,’ said Kempton.” That citation is offered not certainly with pride nor as a definition, but only to suggest how oblique the subject is. For it is as well to say that Congressman Lindsay is so complex that one can almost forgive him for being so nice.
The Young Man from the provinces “may be of good family but he must be poor.” Mr. Lindsay’s true family is that of the Whig resistance, certainly good and certainly poor these days. He has very little notable politics that were not destroyed in the eighteenth century. Mr. Button too much exaggerates his position in Congress as Mr. Parmentel too much deprecates it; given his temperament and interests it is unlikely that Mr. Lindsay could ever be an important Congressman except in the aesthetic sense. Mr. Button recites the interests in the admiring detail they deserve: Mr. Lindsay’s solitary vote against a bill which would force any citizen to prove that the material he was mailing was not obscene; his denunciation of the loyalty oath requirement for student applicants for National Defense Education Act loans; his leadership in defeating the late Congressman Walter’s “industrial security, anti-subversive” bill.
“As a Republican,” Mr. Lindsay said once, “I see my task in Congress as that of redefining the role of the individual in our half-garrison, part-welfare state.” That is a stranger’s role, and one which has earned Mr. Lindsay less enthusiasm from progressive opinion than one would ordinarily expect. The reason must be that progressive opinion is not conditioned to trust persons who distrust the state. It cannot be suggested, from the broad course of history, that liberal Democrats have cared much more for the privacy of the person than conservative Republicans have. The incapacity of the Congress truly to resist the President is, in fact, to a considerable degree the work of liberal Democrats. New York has not lately endured a governor with a larger weakness for authoritarian legislation than Averell Harriman had. And more than his share of government’s excesses as policeman and investigator belonged to President Truman, who still gets high marks because he was so direct in his distaste for Senator McCarthy and for Chairman Thomas of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. But the point may have been no more than that McCarthy and the HUAC sinned for Mr. Truman most of all because they were demonstrations by distortion of all that remained of the impulse of the Commons to harry the Crown.
It is argued that Congressman Lindsay has said very little that is novel or useful about urban government. One has to concede that, by temperament and interest, he has hardly tried to qualify for this discourse; his mind tends more to the broad than to the particular. His largest disappointment in Congress is that, for want of being clubable, he has continually been passed over for the House Committee on Foreign Relations; his special pride as a legislator is in his position as chairman of the NATO parliamentarians’ conference, whose empty ceremonies are truly noted by Mr. Button in a tone of high seriousness and self-consciousness appropriate to a prize boy’s letters home from his post-graduate tour.
His three terms in Congress have fixed him more and more to the liberal economic orthodoxies; even before his present compulsion to satisfy the mass Democratic vote in New York, he could be counted as a Johnson Republican, safe on such issues as medicare, the minimum wage, and federal aid to education. He seems, however, to have been largely content to follow roads laid down for him by the Democrats, which would indicate that these are areas with small claim upon his sense of adventure.
Mr. Lindsay would seem then to have a mind rather like the late President Kennedy’s—that is, one difficult to arouse about subjects which do not proclaim themselves pregnant with the crisis of Western civilization—rather than like Senator Robert Kennedy’s, which reserves its strongest passions for the domestic and the parochial. Mr. Lindsay, in other words, gives small evidence of having the local government mind. That has been no deficiency in his prior manifestations; but still you have to wonder how appropriate his sort of mind is to the circumstances of his present quest.
But it is appropriate for an unexpected reason. Mr. Button reminds us that two years or so ago, the New York legislature passed a law which would make it more convenient for policemen to halt persons on the street and search them for weapons, or to enter the homes of suspected criminals. This was a measure devoutly urged both by the Mayor and the Governor; but Congressman Lindsay was moved, alone and from a distance, to invoke in protest the ghost of the elder Pitt: “The poorest man in his cottage can bid defiance to all the forces of the crown…the wind may blow through it, the storm may enter, the rain may enter, but the King of England may not enter.”
Now the worst thing about the urban condition may not be that it is ugly or that it is decaying but rather that there is absent from it simple civility. What would be real then is not the housing issue or the traffic issue but the damaged dignity of the person. We live without notable protest with a Department of Public Welfare, which accepts as a duty and claims as a right the unannounced midnight visit to the mother it suspects of concealing the able-bodied man in her house in order to justify her claim to an Aid-to-Dependent-Children grant. We need only think a moment of this scene to see at once that Mr. Lindsay might be an inappropriate Mayor in every respect but the single most consequential one.
Mr. Lindsay strides our streets as though fresh from a scrotum-tightening sea and his managers tell us, because that is what is expected of them, that his special promise to us is that he will be a modern mayor. His promise instead is that he could be a mayor of very old-fashioned and almost forgotten prejudices.
That they are no more than prejudices can, I think, be fairly asserted because Mr. Lindsay expresses them badly enough to give one the sense that he has felt no special need to think through and refine them. “It was the First Amendent probably that the founders of the country and the first immigrants fought for the hardest,” he has said in a passage which Mr. Button cites with admiration and Mr. Parmentel with derision, in the latter case for its style, not its spirit. It is presumably on the basis of prose like this that Mr. Parmentel judges that Congressman Lindsay “could easily pass muster as a scoutmaster in Peoria…” That is quite true; still he is the scoutmaster of a very small troop: he is pious towards things about which other politicians are only blasphemous; if three hundred members of the House are banal about compulsory prayer in the schools and Mr. Lindsay persists in being banal about the First Amendment, then he becomes a precious bit of goods indeed.
Mr. Button tells us that, when he was a naval lieutenant, Mr. Lindsay read Catherine Drinker Bowen’s biography of Justice Holmes and was thereupon inspired to practice law, a story altogether charming and persuasive. Yankee from Olympus is almost a Henty story. We are told too that he carries Saint-Exupéry with him on campaign; the search seems perennially for the sophisticated tone and the Sixth Form assurances.
Yet James insisted that Hyacinth Robinson be aware and Professor Trilling has explained that the Young Man from the Provinces cannot be merely sensitive:
He wants a share of power and pleasure, he is concerned to know how the political and social world are run and enjoyed; he wants a share of power and pleasure and in consequence he takes real risks, often of his life.
Mr. Lindsay would be much less interesting if he were less than this. He inspires Mr. Button and depresses Mr. Parmentel because they find him so perfect in his innocence; only Mr. Citron suggests a certain complexity. He has gone about seeking Lindsay’s Democratic opponents, in the prior party wars of the 17th Congressional District; they are generally respectful of his parts but wounded enough to feel certain grievances at his cunning. The notion that he is naive does not, it appears, survive the experience of running against him for office. Still, as outsiders, we condescend a little to him, as the Princess does to Hyacinth Robinson, “for his frivolous concern with art.” But, unlike ourselves and unknown to us, he has received his fatal letter of commission. The higher powers appreciate him.
The end of the Young Man from the Provinces is generally sudden fatality. James makes the spare observation that the pistol would have served better for the Duke—in this case, Senator Javits. That sort of thing may be Mr. Lindsay’s end in November, and he will go through life no better than half-alive as an unattended and isolated voice in Congress. It would be a pity if that would be all there was. I can, of course, conceive no reason why any citizen would not want him as a mayor. By his mere persistence in carrying a memory, he embodies a hope. But that aside, one wants the fatality, the distinguished thing, deferred. One wants the novel to go on.