Governing the City: Challenges and Options for New York
A Political Life: The Education of John V. Lindsay
New York, October 27.
Snobbery seems insufficiently understood as a factor in democratic politics, which, more often than not, is just the wriggling of the man who feels snubbed in unequal contest with the man who can snub. The subject is indeed so neglected that it arises only once in a recent study of the governance of New York: when Irving Kristol, co-editor first of Encounter and now of The Public Interest, complains about the hauteur of “the Upper East Side and Suburban Elite (the media men, WASP bankers and foundation officials, affluent Jewish financiers and professionals, advertising agencies, etc.).”*
But we need only take note of Irving Kristol being afflicted by the imagined snubs of McGeorge Bundy, and think of Rhody McCoy, unafflicted by the real snubs of Irving Kristol, to recognize snobbery as the sovereign element in our politics. The snobbery of the city explains almost everything: it is part of the reason why Mr. Lindsay has failed as a Mayor and much of the reason why he succeeds as a candidate, why, having been repudiated, he will now be re-elected.
James Q. Wilson nicely describes Mr. Lindsay as the archetype of the “audience-oriented” Mayor, the actor in public confrontations. There has been one pattern common to these exhibitions: Mr. Lindsay loses when he represents a lower social order against a higher one and he wins when he comes forward for a higher against a lower. The debate over the Civilian Review Board was won by the police, a superior class once it is cast against the Negroes and the young. The teachers beat the Mayor on school decentralization and thus preserved an order where, if teachers sometimes need to defer to the parents of the rich, the parents of the poor must always defer to teachers. But the Mayor beat the sanitation workers, on style at least, because he made the issue one of whether the city would bow its head to garbage collectors, having, in this case, arrayed snobbery on his side.
So now we come upon him before the National Council of Jewish Women in Kew Gardens, in the borough of Queens. The chairlady’s introduction has the peculiarly spare ostentation of royal gazettes, being all titles and no descriptions: “It is with pride I present our Chief Executive, John Vliet Lindsay, the Mayor of the City.” We have wandered into a monarchical occasion; even the flatness of his words suggests those speeches from the throne which permit no flight of language that might distract our attention from the monarch’s complexion. He is awful and we fear him; he is also vulnerable and we feel compelled to protect him; he is at once Prince Rupert and Saint Sebastian. Someone in the audience asks him why he has neglected Queens. We share the chairlady’s undisguised embarrassment; and he is even more affronted for himself than we are for him.
He chills, and suddenly is the judge of us who were presumably gathered to judge him. He remembers the twelve new subway lines—“the overwhelming majority of them in Queens”—which the rest of us had not even begun to anticipate. “If you really think that what you say is true, you should not vote for me.” And suddenly it is we who look down into that pit of oblivion which we had thought had yawned only for him.
Where did we go wrong? How did we receive the wisdom that he could not win the election, that he might even run third? From ourselves, I suppose. The New York which journalists know is a location for games played by persons drawn from the studio audience, teachers holding up placards that blazon their incapacity for spelling, the Jewish Defense League with its chains and its baseball bats, the garbage men singing “Let It Snow/ Let It Snow” and driving away anyone who might have felt sympathy for them by their probably unmeant insistence that they prayed God to make a catastrophe out of a strike that, until now, was only an inconvenience.
Such samples have been misleading; they include no person who fears that he might blush when everyone is looking at him. The higher the urge to be conspicuous, the lower the sense of propriety or, when the urge is extreme, of decency. The brides we see on afternoon television are probably readier for bawdy exchanges with the gamesmaster than most brides, even now, may be with their grooms. But we have drawn so many actors from the audience that we have come to think the actors are the audience.
Now we travel to that New York which does not act without first pausing to think how the thing may look; and it is a journey across a terrain which seems as immense as the whole country, and, if no more mysterious, certainly less conducive to the confidence that its nature can be penetrated at a glance. A candidate for President can, after all, travel almost as fast from Pittsburgh to Atlanta as can a candidate for Mayor from Madison Avenue to Flushing, and with much less shock in the transition. “Queens,” says the columnist Bruce Biossat during one such long, generally empty, night, “is a great suburban sprawl which is engulfing and will finally blight the inner city.” The very size of any segment of the city can be described only by comparison with entire cities elsewhere. New York has, Senator Marchi remarks, “a welfare population equal to the entire city of Baltimore”; the civil service is the size of Omaha.
It is that size more than anything else which explains the incomprehension of our journalists and our politicians alike and which reduces both classes to grasping helplessly at the caricature to describe the type. Everyone remembers when Charles Buckley of the Bronx decided that he needed a Puerto Rican candidate and summoned Herman Badillo for inspection. “You are,” he said, “too tall to be a Puerto Rican.” No one was going to pass a fake Puerto Rican off on Charles Buckley. But we tread his path even as we laugh at him.
We know that the majority of voters in this election may be Jewish, but when we canvass the Jewish vote, we feel safe only when we can touch the gaberdine, see the beard, be reassured by the yamulka that we have not lost the track. There are professional politicians around Comptroller Procaccino who cling to the hope that his ethnic appeal will finally triumph over the laughter and the pity his person arouses; but none of them is Italian. It is the Italians who flee Procaccino for some of the same reasons which explain why the Mayor will be re-elected—not at all because the language of the Jewish Defense League affronted non-Jews but very much because it embarrassed Jews.
The putative authenticity of the ethnic candidate is founded on the survival in him of the very things which mark him most clearly as obsolete; he comes to us from the vaudeville of the Twenties. We ought to have learned by now that the ideal Jewish candidate is a Yale Episcopalian. Even so, a man respected for his powers of judgment could say a month ago: “You laugh at Procaccino and I laugh at Procaccino, but you forget how many men with those pencil-thin mustaches are having lunch in the Waldorf Cafeteria in the Bronx right now and they don’t laugh.” And now a journalist traveling with Mr. Procaccino comes back to report herself standing next to a dumpy little man who says, “That dumpy little man thinks he can be Mayor?”
You felt all this, but you did not trust yourself to believe it; the anxiety of the wait for the Daily News “straw poll,” which as this is being written shows Lindsay in the lead, was born in the feeling, which I think everyone sensible had, that in this election there was no safe way to estimate the vote of any one of the three candidates within ten percentage points. Now that the Daily News is in, and we know Mr. Lindsay to be secure, we can look back and see that the clue was in the alarm of the chairlady in Queens when a question had been asked which might set Mr. Lindsay in peril. How often you find that same protective reaction among presiding officers who, after all, have no institutional responsibility to protect Lindsay against himself, and whose job instead ought to be to keep matters lively if decorous.
At Bronx Community College, a student asks the Mayor what he thinks of the National Liberation Front. “I don’t think he ought to answer that,” the College’s black president intervenes, as though thrown back to some imagined horror during his prior tenure at a Southern Negro college when a student stands up to tell the trustees that henceforth the institution is to be called Malcolm X University. “It’s all right; it’s all right,” the Mayor says and then gives a reply which is everything but an answer, there being no Dark Tower to which he will not come, rendered no less dauntless by the flatness of what he blows.
He comes from the last game of the World Series to face an audience of writers, by no means all committed to him, and the first question which occurs to Bennett Cerf, as chairman-representative of the community of the critical intelligence, is what those present can do to help him. Mr. Lindsay answers that anyone who has a mind might just write down a paragraph or so for use in his speeches, especially if it is a joke. He begins with a few pleasantries about the Mets; it is understandable that a warrior the dimensions of whose terrain require him to pass in 90 minutes from looking at Ron Swoboda to being looked at by Paul Goodman must settle for saying the same things to everyone. Still who could conceive of anyone except John Lindsay proceeding so unaware of and yet not affronting the self-seriousness which sits in every writer? You depart composing replies from Paul Goodman for another scene when another politician may dare to say to him: “I need, in my time of trial, all the wisdom that is in you; think up some jokes.”
I do not think all this can be assigned to any impulse so simple as the recognition that the alternatives are so much worse. There remains a part of us which needs the most strenuous intellectual effort to accept alternatives that would be arguably better. Lindsay has failed as a Mayor; and there are facts about his situation and streaks in his temperament which make it doubtful that he will ever succeed. To take just one example, I know no detached witness who does not think that the city hospitals are at least as bad now as they were when he found them; and no Mayor is a success if he cannot show some small general improvement in the medical care of the poor.
Focus on New York, A Special Issue of The Public Interest, 201 pp., $2.00.↩
Focus on New York, A Special Issue of The Public Interest, 201 pp., $2.00.↩