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.
The Academy of Political Science’s Governing the City offers some explanation of and one good excuse for the failures of the Mayor; and Nat Hentoff’s A Political Life provides a full explanation of why, lacking him, we have had to invent him. Governing the City is a collation of eighteen essays by scholars each of whose professional specialty is some aspect of municipal affairs. It amounts to a statement of bankruptcy. Few of these people can describe; none seems interested enough to propose. “American democracy has shown unusual capacity to respond to changing needs,” the President of the American Academy of Political Science reminds us. “One can expect, consequently, that recognition of urban needs will bring a response in keeping with the traditions of the American system.”
“[In New York]” he is proud to remember, “to a remarkable extent there has been a close relationship between academicians and city agencies.” And what, on this evidence of the academic imagination at work, can the city agencies learn there?
“There is a real need to view recreation as a year-round concern in the ghetto as elsewhere.”
“Among the several questions that could be raised about the difficulties in the city schools one seems most important: Is this a new problem?”
“As this century draws to a close…the bureaucrats of that era will probably look back in wonder at the defensiveness and anxieties of their predecessors and in amusement at the occupants of one of the last strong-holds of handicraft industry (which is what municipal government still is) in the midst of the cybernetic revolution, the second industrial revolution.”
I hope that the infectious boredom of these essays has not distracted me into being unfair in my choice of excerpts; these seem to me a fair sample of their complacence, their passivity, their tone of things-used-to-be-worse and we-can-depend-on-someone-else-to-invent-something -to-make-them-better.
You hear Mr. Lindsay explain his past mistakes: “I have learned,” he says, “to assume total control of the intelligence-gathering system. If you don’t know these things, you will make mistakes.” And then you read Governing the City and shudder over the pitiable shards of what has been franchised as serious study of our municipal affairs. You have to wonder what fruit there could be from the gathering of intelligence so depressed and yet so common to the social sciences. We could better blame Mr. Lindsay for not having known if we were not here confronted with so urgent an example of our national indifference to the training of persons whose profession it is to know.
Nat Hentoff’s A Political Life seems to me entirely charming, although its charm has been achieved by the suspension of those powers of disbelief which have been Hentoff’s prior great strength. He has never before written anything with so little use and so much attraction as ornament. He will set down with approval sentiments of John Lindsay’s from whose exhaustion of spirit he would, in every other case, have turned with a withering smile, for example, “The cancer will be arrested and cured only by funding and implementing a huge Manhattan Project. If we were able to do it to bring the atom bomb into being, why can’t we do it for the cities—and for the states and localities?” Hentoff has been untrue to himself, as he has not been before and will not be again; it is the curious grandeur of John Lindsay that, without even demanding it, he can always expect so ultimate a sacrifice.
Still the sacrifice has its uses: The Mayor is allowed to proceed through monologues which, from anyone else, Hentoff would certainly have interrupted with embarrassing questions; but their free flow here really helps us to understand that ability of his to be reborn the morning after each dreadful night which renders us incapable of resisting John Lindsay.
“Take Maurice Feldman (the Commissioner of Water Resources under the new Environmental Protection Administration)…Feldman’s one of the best men we have and he was very skeptical when I started the reorganization plan…. You ought to talk to Feldman.”
Now James Marcus was Commissioner of Water Resources until his indictment by the United States Attorney. Having overreached himself before his appointment, Marcus was reduced after it to paying his debts by selling contracts through the Mafia. There is small cause for doubt that, if Marcus had gone on uncaught, the Mayor would be distributing to him those hyperboles which now go to Feldman. And yet, once Marcus was caught, it became obvious to everyone that, even if he had been honest, nothing in his previous experience suggested that he was qualified for the job.
This unhappy incident comes to us now transformed by the Mayor’s memory into the shining occasion for the discovery of Maurice Feldman. Hentoff does not pause over the irony that, were it not for the intrusion of public prosecutors, the Mayor might well be suggesting that he call Marcus. He just calls Feldman and solemnly records his appreciation of the prodigies the Mayor has brought to Environmental Protection, a judgment not surprising from the Commissioner in charge of these prodigies.
Hentoff thinks of Lindsay as the last of the Puritans. But if he were no more than that, it is hard to believe that he could so bemuse Hentoff and the rest of us. Those night rides upon synagogues, which, from a distance, seem bristling with enemies and which, upon his mere arrival, yield with huzzahs for the King, remind us much more of Prince Rupert than of the iron grinding of the New Model Army, more of Montrose than of the Covenanters. It is the Cavalier and not the Puritan in Mr. Lindsay which calls out to us; serious men do not yield up their critical faculties to Puritans.
You rather wish, considering his normal diffidence toward the breed, that Hentoff had wondered more about the special innocence of white Protestants, their careless assumption that, having been God-chosen, they will be permanently God-protected. Over and over again, he gives us a Mr. Lindsay continually raised in spirit because someone wonderful has just turned up and as continually undashed by the departure of that same someone, leaving things unchanged, occasionally a little worse, behind him.
“Okay, we’ve got [Mitchell] Sviridoff coming in to integrate all the anti-poverty programs into a Human Resources Administration,” one of the Mayor’s assistants tells Hentoff early on. “He’s supposed to be a great guy.” Sviridoff remains just long enough to discover that this is one of those combat situations unpromising to the reputation of captains and withdraws to quarters in the Ford Foundation. A year after the proclamation of approaching salvation at his hands—he had been unmentioned in the chronicle since—one of the Mayor’s assistants is saying to Hentoff: “That’s what can go wrong in hiring top people. John was assured by everyone he asked—in the federal government, at the foundations—that Sviridoff was a superb administrator…. But Sviridoff was a poor administrator. He was able to set up programs, but he couldn’t run them well.”
There are other examples of hopes as bright followed by reality as gray. But Mr. Lindsay seems lifted even higher by the promise which approaches tomorrow than he used to be by the promise which disappeared yesterday. Perhaps we have so much trouble understanding him because we have not thought enough about what this country may have been like when it was more dominantly Anglo-Saxon and even more uniformly self-deceiving. Certainly Acton was much too generous in deciding that Benjamin Franklin was the only foolish man at the Constitutional Convention; otherwise could the most persistent adjective in Henry Adams’s History of the Administration of James Madison have been “imbecile”? After all, might not the most acute observation on the illusion of our ancestors be what Dickens brought back from the Philadelphia of the 1830s?
Near the city is a most splendid unfinished marble structure for the Girard College, founded by a deceased gentleman of that name and of enormous wealth, which, if completed according to the original design, will be perhaps the richest edifice of modern times. But the bequest is involved in legal disputes and pending them the work is stopped; so that, like many great undertakings in America, even this is rather going to be done one of these days, than doing now.
Yet these people forced their illusions upon us and upon the world; even now Dickens seems mean-spirited here, as nowhere else in his work. In the same way, we feel mean-spirited when we make fun of John Lindsay. One does not mock the innocent and the brave.
Along with its snobbery, there are prejudices and bigotries peculiar to the city. They are to be seen most clearly at work in our judgment of Senator Marchi, the Republican-Conservative candidate. Snobbery cannot operate as a shield against Senator Marchi; he is Italianate where Mr. Procaccino is Italo-American in parody; he reminds you, in the suppleness of his movements and the abstraction of his reasoning processes, of no one so much as the chaplain of some Duchess of Tuscany, with the difference of course that Senator Marchi is American enough to believe in God. He is, like most persons of refinement, moderate in nature and rather more comfortable company than Mr. Lindsay sometimes is, the Hero being, as Desmond McCarthy said of Joyce, not a convenient guest at luncheon. By accident he is the nominee of Mr. Lindsay’s most venomous enemies; but he makes it clear that, if he had to choose between voting for the Mayor or Mr. Procaccino, he would not hesitate long about voting for the Mayor.
His bearing early on induced some persons impatient with the Mayor to lean toward him as the only candidate talking sense to the city. That is a just assessment; and Senator Marchi is a splendid example of the danger reason presents. He tells us that free tuition at the City Colleges is foolish, that the twenty-cent subway fare is unrealistic, that Blue Cross is entitled to an increase in premiums. Reason is on his side in every case; it is demagoguery to say otherwise. And yet what shield is there for the workingman except demagoguery? Only the most irrational resistance can limit the rational depredations of his franchised masters; if the five-cent fare, the ten-cent fare, the fifteen-cent fare, and now the twenty-cent fare had not been successively the “sacred cows” of Senator Marchi’s gentle derision and thus fanatically to be defended, we should doubtless have the rule of reason and a fifty-cent fare now.
That our illusions, our special prejudices, keep so much life is the glory and hope of New York as its peculiar bigotry was Londonderry’s. The final clue to Mr. Lindsay’s survival is found in the answers to one question on the Daily News poll:
To Curb Crime in the Street, I Favor
(1) Firmer police Action and swifter justice by courts…54%.
(2) Continuing present city policies…………………………….….3%.
(3) More effort to wipe out the causes of crime………….….43%.
After all our experiences and disillusionments, 43 percent of us still believe that this society could be capable, with its gentle, sure, and healing hand, of wiping out the causes of crime. I suppose that notion is nonsense and I am grateful to live in a city where there are so many persons still able to believe it. The nonsense which replaces the benevolent is the malignant.
November 20, 1969