New York Mayor John Lindsay. Remember Him?


Caption: I'll bet Lindsay never dreamed this would happen!

© Joseph Farris / New Yorker Collection /

Between John F. Kennedy at the start of the decade and Bobby Kennedy towards its end, in the mid-1960s another charismatic young politician briefly brought energy and promise to public life. He was John V. Lindsay, the liberal Republican congressman from New York's Upper East Side who was elected mayor of New York in 1965. His appeal was forever captured in columnist Murray Kempton's characterization on the day Lindsay started his mayoral campaign: "He is fresh and everyone else is tired." Eight years later, at the end of his second term at City Hall and after a brief run as a Democrat for president in 1972, Lindsay retired. The New York Times Magazine featured his weary face on the cover, with crease lines highlighted by the crises he had encountered, including strikes by municipal workers, budgetary problems, middle-class flight, crime surges, interracial tension over schools and community control, welfare, and a prison riot.

Lindsay never again played a significant role in American politics and seems to have been largely forgotten, except by those in the Baby Boomer generation who were drawn to his vision for progressive urban leadership and those who remember his tenure as a time of social turmoil and challenges that overwhelmed whatever good intentions the mayor had for the city. Now spurred by the fundraising efforts of Jay Kriegel, who as a very young man was Lindsay's chief of staff and special counsel, his former aides and others in his administration have revived the era and the man at its center with an ambitious multimedia presentation notable for its range and candor about Lindsay's bold goals and the multiple obstacles he encountered in pursuit of them. About $850,000 was raised from 300 contributors to mount a fascinating exhibit at The Museum of the City of New York (until October 3) called "America's Mayor: John V. Lindsay and the Reinvention of New York," a companion book of essays by journalists and historians, edited by Sam Roberts of The New York Times, a documentary produced by WNET, the New York public television station, a website, and a series of six symposia at institutions around the city discussing the Lindsay legacy.

"I'd rather John Lindsay be remembered as controversial than be forgotten," Kriegel said, in justifying what some of the old Lindsay faithful see as a decidedly critical appraisal of much of what happened in his years in office as conveyed in the documentary and some of the essays.

Lindsay, a Navy officer in World War II and a graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School, served four terms in the House representing what was known then as the "Silk Stocking" district. He was a liberal Republican of the sort that once was a major force in the GOP and is now virtually extinct. In the mayoral race, he won with 43 percent on the Republican/Liberal Party line, defeating Democrat Abe Beame, the controller, with 39 percent, and William F. Buckley, the writer who ran as a Conservative in protest of Lindsay's candidacy and received 13 percent of the vote. New York City had been governed through the 1950s and early 1960s—competently, it was believed—by Robert F. Wagner, who served three terms. And yet the thrust of the Lindsay campaign and the spirit of the times was that the city was decaying into crisis with rising crime, decrepit infrastructure, disappearing manufacturing jobs, a fleeing middle class, pollution, traffic, and a worsening school system.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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