A new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, a new book, and a new documentary (to air again on PBS May 12) comprise a joint project with the apparent aim of refurbishing the tarnished reputation of John Lindsay, who presided over the rapid decline of New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
This attempted revisionism is reminiscent of the obituaries and press tributes that came Lindsay’s way on the occasion of his passing in December 2000, as the very media that created and nurtured Lindsay would, at the time of his death, seek to put the best possible face on a political career that ranged from the mediocre to the disastrous. How deep in the tank for Lindsay were the city’s leading media outlets? Ken Auletta, in The Streets Were Paved with Gold, his study of how New York nearly went bankrupt in the 1970s, wrote:
The paper that thinks of itself as the city’s conscience — The New York Times — abdicated. … The editorial page editors of both [the Times and the then-liberal New York Post] were too close to Lindsay, serving as advisers. They were not only politically but ideologically coopted. They supported the city’s tax and spending policies. Instead of viewing what the city was doing as harshly as they would Defense Department cost overruns, they permitted their liberal ideology to sway their judgment.
In a telling anecdote in Fit to Print, a biography of former Times executive editor A.M. Rosenthal, author Joseph Goulden quotes a reporter named Douglas Robinson who witnessed something extraordinary on election night 1965: Rosenthal and deputy metropolitan editor, Arthur Gelb, “were dancing up and down as the returns came in showing a victory for Lindsay. ‘We won! We won!’ they were shouting.”
Of course, there are limits to what even the most accomplished revisionist can do with a record like Lindsay’s, and the Times, straining to find praise in an editorial the week of Lindsay’s death, was forced to acknowledge the realities of life under Lindsay:
There was continuing labor unrest, fiscal problems, rising taxes and crime, a tripling of the welfare rolls. During his tenure … the white middle and working classes felt increasingly alienated, especially when the mayor tried to build housing for poor blacks in the mostly Jewish, middle-class section of Forest Hills. … He even gets much of the legitimate blame for the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s. Quite the indictment, all around.
Lindsay was an especially unloved figure in the city’s Jewish community, reviled by outer-borough Jews who blamed him for the city’s skyrocketing crime rate and his administration’s pandering to militants in minority communities.
As noted by sociologist Jonathan Rieder in Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn against Liberalism, when Lindsay ran for re-election in 1969, his share of the Jewish vote totaled between 30 and 36 percent in Canarsie’s most liberal areas and considerably less in other parts of what at the time was a quintessentially lower-middle-class neighborhood.
One of Rieder’s interviewees summed up the feelings of his friends and neighbors: “It was under John Lindsay,” he said, “that the Jewish community in New York suffered its greatest decline.”