America's Mayor in the New York City Sleeper Hold: John Lindsay, In Retrospect

Of course America should love John Lindsay now... again. In an age where Mad Men gets four seasons, he's the Don Draper of New York City mayors, while the guys who bookend his two terms -- Bob Wagner, Jr., and Abe Beame -- are more like the Freddy Rumsons: stodgy, squat and liable to piss themselves. The tall and dashing Lindsay ushered the Sixties into full swing with a debonair certainty and stride to match. The columnist Murray Kempton said it the way all the others wished they had: "He is fresh and everyone else is tired."

It is fitting that the Kempton quote keeps popping up throughout the many tributes being paid to Lindsay this season. There is an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, a documentary on public television, and a book of essays from Columbia University Press, America's Mayor: John V. Lindsay and the Reinvention of New York. In each, the promise of Lindsay -- that "he is fresh and everyone else is tired" -- is referred to over and over again as a reminder of the congressman whose 1964 campaign poster, "THE DISTRICT'S PRIDE, THE NATION'S HOPE," was plastered far beyond his Upper East Side district, or the candidate who graced the covers of Life and Newsweek months before his victory, or the man who seemed on his way to becoming America's Mayor at the start of 1966. A top aide to Mayor Wagner, once quipped that "John Lindsay is the only man I've ever heard of who is already the greatest mayor in history before he took office." Yet for many New Yorkers, those dreams of greatness vanished within the first weeks of his term, and many were left to wonder as reporter Joyce Purnick did: "What produced Lindsay's record of failures: the leader or his times?"

'John Lindsay wuz ROBBED!' cry his old whiz kids as they parade through these recountings of the Lindsay Years. And yet they just as quickly capitulate, admitting that their 1965 campaign aura didn't quite translate to the governing side of things.

It was a humbling experience from the get-go. The young mayor first decided he was going to stand up to the city's Transit Workers Union, representing some thirty-five thousand subway operators and bus drivers. It was a tradition that shortly before every other New Year's, TWU President Mike Quill and Mayor Wagner would publicly spar over their contract, only to disappear into the proverbial backroom and hammer out a deal. Strikes were threatened but never materialized, and the agreements they came to were usually met with derision from both sides and therefore assumed to be decent to everyone... well, decent to everyone except for the New York Times editorial board. The mayor and the union boss sharing their biennial midnight kiss repulsed the arbiters of civic decency. Thing was, Wagner didn't give a damn. Lindsay, on the other hand, did. According to Vincent J. Cannato, author of The Ungovernable City, the Gray Lady "was seen as dictating to the mayor-elect a get-tough policy with the municipal unions." Lindsay was going to take the righteous path and show Quill and the TWU who's boss. Little did he know the old Irishman wanted a strike to reaffirm his primacy over his membership.

And thus, the clock struck midnight, 1966 began and the city celebrated as the powers of mayoralty were officially conferred upon John Vliet Lindsay. Within five hours, the members of the TWU were the first to take a bite out of his Big Apple. The strike was on. As Lindsay and his deputies repaired to their new offices inside City Hall, they soon discovered that Wagner's boys had removed all the office supplies save for a few stubby pencils. Lindsay couldn't find so much as a paperclip, and here he was, preparing for millions of New Yorkers about to wake up to a city without a public transportation system. No political honeymoon, not even a fresh sheet of paper. He would walk to work the next day, seventy blocks, a symbol of energy and vigor to set an example for a new city in a new era. And the people had his back... for the moment, anyway.

"He is fresh and everyone else is tired." Maybe he was, but as the strike wore on, it became increasingly clear that this tired city had America's Mayor in a sleeper hold. After nearly two weeks of hellish traffic, of not being able to get to work, of businesses not being able to open, New Yorkers didn't give a damn if their mayor was teaching the unions a lesson on ethics in government; they wanted their public transport back. Even in the press, the righteous exaltation of Mayor Lindsay as the model of civic integrity had given way to gentle mocking, with nicknames like 'Mr. Clean,' 'Captain Marvel' and 'Prince Valiant.' Lindsay didn't want this. And he sure didn't want a settlement as large as $52 million, but that's what they paid (the union said it was $70 mil). Though the worst part was the $500 million it had cost the city in lost revenues.

If the Kempton quote is the Yin, the transit strike is the Yang that hovers over these latest tributes to the Lindsay legacy. It is the Marley's Ghost of the administration, groaning at the mayor to pack away his ideals and compromise. But Lindsay does not. True, he caved in on many occasions, but only after he took a principled stand and suffered the blows.

This resiliency is what kept the Lindsay image intact despite the crumbling all around him - the skyrocketing crime rates and welfare rolls, the budgets stealthily headed for disaster. Image is what makes him seem redeemable today, and even then image sometimes produced concrete results. Sam Roberts, the New York Times journalist and editor of America's Mayor, observes that had Lindsay not plunged headlong into the ghettos on hot nights when riots seemed inevitable, there would not have been a city "for Koch to salvage or for Giuliani and Bloomberg to revive."

Yet, image accounted for his out-sized hubris as well. When one of the essayists in America's Mayor gives the ten reasons why Lindsay does not rank among the four greatest mayors in New York City history, one must recall that before his 1969 campaign commercials bandied about title, "the second toughest job in America," Lindsay would not have considered himself in the company of mere mayors. The shortwave radio handles he used in 1965 and 1966 were "Ben" and "Winston," short for the epic British prime ministers, Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill.

Even Robert Kennedy, Lindsay's New York contemporary as a U.S. Senator, couldn't stand how the man singularly cultivated an image -- a charge that had long been the knock against Kennedys. (Imagine how horrified the senator must have been the time when an elderly woman on 14th Street grabbed him by the hand and said, "It's good to meet you, Mr. Lindsay.") Kennedy never heard Purnick's question of whether the failure of Lindsay was the man or his times, but he did have an answer. He once said that if Richard J. Daley, the stocky, small-shouldered mayor of Chicago, looked anything like Lindsay, "he'd be president."

"If Lindsay looked like Daley, he'd be in jail."