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The Guiding Light

In response to:

I'm the Greatest! from the April 12, 1984 issue

To the Editors:

I read with amusement the review of Mayor by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. [NYR, April 12]. If Dr. Schlesinger correctly credits Harold Ickes with diagnosing Huey Long’s ailment as “halitosis of the intellect,” then I am sure Mr. Ickes, were he still with us, would find a familiar scent about this particular book review.

To begin with, Schlesinger the reviewer betrays Schlesinger the historian by not revealing the biases of Schlesinger the politician. As an elected official is accountable to the citizenry a historian should be accountable to his biases. In his review, Dr. Schlesinger was not.

I am not a modest nor a particularly likable man, according to Dr. Schlesinger. To him, I am “self-righteous,” “truculent,” a “mean and vindictive man” who devotes too much of “his boundless energy to self-adulation”; possessed of an “overpowering egotism”; in me candor may have “become an instrument of aggression.” I am even, he believes, “prepared to pluck the racial nerve in the city to [my] own political advantage.”

Strong stuff. Much weaker, however, when one considers that Dr. Schlesinger was a charter member of the “Dump Koch” movement in 1981. He was among a handful of New Yorkers who tried unsuccessfully to find and field a candidate against me in my 1981 run for a second term. His opinions of me, it seems, are influenced not just by his interests as a scholar, but by his political positions. He is biased. Nowhere in his review does Dr. Schlesinger admit to that bias.

Dr. Schlesinger’s 1981 political failure is nonetheless instructive. His review argues that I am a “dismal failure” because my administration, unlike those of my three “fair-minded” predecessors, gives to minorities the impression that it “dislikes them.” Unfortunately, Dr. Schlesinger fails to recall or to report that no racial disturbances or violence have marred my terms. They did mar the terms of my three “fair-minded” predecessors.

Nor could one expect Dr. Schlesinger to regard as significant the fact that in the 1981 general election I received 60% of the black vote, 70% of the Hispanic vote and carried every Assembly District in the City of New York.

It was the first time a candidate for Mayor won contested primaries in both major parties, received both endorsements in the general election and in so doing amassed a greater electoral majority than any of his predecessors—even more than Dr. Schlesinger’s three favorite examples of fair-mindedness.

Unfortunately, Dr. Schlesinger is right to suggest that the racial nerve is here to be plucked by those who wish to be demagogic. If I were so inclined, however, I probably would not have appointed so many minority commissioners—equal, for example, to the appointments made by my three “fair-minded” predecessors combined. Nor would I oppose apartheid in South Africa or encourage voter registration at home. I probably would not have reformed, but destroyed the economic opportunity programs that so squandered public dollars that were meant for the poor.

My record as Mayor belies demagoguery. Of course, there are bigots in New York both white and black. This administration has never responded to either’s tune. The racial nerve is here to be plucked because New York is a racially, religiously, and ethnically diverse city. Diverse, not divided. We can enjoy that diversity because, no matter how diverse, we are united by common concerns.

On such concern is the city’s ability to care for the poor. Dr. Schlesinger knows all too well that regrettably minorities become majorities only when surveying the ranks of the poor. The public fiscal health determines the level of services which can be provided. Quite simply, had the city gone bankrupt, we could not have paid its bills and, thus, could not have delivered its services. For good and rational reasons, those who could afford to leave the city—the upper and middle classes—would have left. They would have taken their incomes, their investments, and their taxes with them. Left to live in and to support the city would have been the poor, the aged, and the unskilled. The city limits would have become a dividing line between rich and poor, white and black. New York would not have survived.

Fortunately, New York has survived. Unfortunately, it has had to survive with a pareddown municipal budget. For example, we have 6,500 fewer police officers today than we did at the height of the fiscal crisis. Nonetheless, for the past two years the incidence of violent crime in the city has fallen 15%. Indeed, though we have made cuts in most city departments, the semi-annual management reports issued by my administration demonstrate that our productivity and management programs have improved, not reduced services. In departments where service improvement has slowed, we’ve allocated additional funds and hired additional personnel.

Moreover, had Dr. Schlesinger been more fair in his review he would have referred to the enormous strides this administration has made in addressing the needs of the homeless for food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. But rather than citing how our budget allocations for such services have grown ten-fold, he portrays my policies as callous and uncaring. Despite my record in Congress and as Mayor, he pretends that I am against government. I am not against government. I am against mis-government. As my testimony to the Democratic Strategy Council suggested, regulations and rules imposed, but not paid for by federal or state administrations, are misgovernment. They raise bold expectations, but provide no means by which to attain them. No wonder people rail against big government for failing to deliver. It often doesn’t deliver.

The decisions I have made as Mayor have not been made according to how well they will “play” in Manhattan or Queens or Staten Island or Brooklyn or the Bronx. They have been made in the interest of a fiscally and programmatically sound city government. Such a government plays well in all five boroughs.

Although Dr. Schlesinger charges me with elitism, he proffers not evidence, but only self-indicting conclusions. To assume, as he does, that Manhattan will react differently to my book than the other boroughs based upon his assessment of where sophisticated and urbane New Yorkers reside, is both elitist and incorrect. Certainly, the proportion of foolish people to those with common sense remains the same both in and out of Manhattan unless, of course, Dr. Schlesinger tips the balance.

My book has two basic lessons for those who read it carefully. The first is that candor and honesty in government should be a guiding light, not just an occasional experiment. The second is that good government knows when it is foolish to say yes and when it is sound to say no. I have said both to presidents of the United States, striking workers, neighborhood activists, business people, religious and academic leaders, and friends. For that I do not expect, indeed hope, that they will trust me, respect me, and understand that our government exists for the people of New York City, not just for one or two of its particular parts or even for one or two of its particular citizens.

Edward I. Koch

Mayor

New York City

Arthur Schlesinger replies:

I thank the Mayor for documenting so volubly and persuasively the case I endeavored to make in the review of his book.

Of course I have doubted many aspects of the Mayor’s record. That is why I joined in the search for an alternative in 1981. Does the Mayor really believe that Mayor can be legitimately reviewed only by people who agree with him about himself?

The Mayor likes to cite figures from the 1981 general election to prove his popularity among black voters. The general election, in which he was the candidate of both major parties, proves nothing. The 1981 primary election provides the real test. Here the Mayor received only 30 percent of the vote in black districts. The 1983 primary against Mario Cuomo for the gubernatorial nomination provides another real test, and here the Mayor did badly with black voters again.

Please not “Dr.” Schlesinger. I do not have a Ph.D. degree. In any case, the title “Dr.” should be reserved for physicians.

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