John V. Lindsay, who in 1965 became the first Republican to hold the New York City mayoralty since Fiorello La Guardia left office twenty years earlier, was best known among New Yorkers for his statement that the city was ungovernable. He made this remark after riots in Harlem, Brooklyn, and Queens, after the deficit spending of his administration had driven New York to the point of bankruptcy, and after street crime had made much of the city unsafe.
Lindsay, a former congressman from the Bluestocking District of the Upper East Side, had ridden to his mayoral victory as the Republicans’ answer to Robert Kennedy and to the political corruption of Tammany Hall. Periodic scandals within the administration of Robert F. Wagner, coupled with the electorate’s desire for charisma rather than substance, had made Lindsay mayor. A crippling two-week transit strike beginning the first day of his administration, a two-week sanitation strike, and two weeks without snow removal in the outer boroughs following a twenty-inch snowfall were only the beginnings of Lindsay’s undoing. He won a second term on the Liberal Party ticket only because he had so many opponents that default prevailed.
Lindsay attempted to salvage his political career by switching parties in 1971 and running for the Democratic nomination to the presidency. Even the Peter Principle (the theory that employees or public servants will advance to their highest level of competence and then ascend to and remain at a level at which they are incompetent) has some limits, however, and after his conspicuous and comprehensive failures, Lindsay retired from public life.
Lindsay’s tragedy is New York’s tragedy, and the city had seen the scenario replayed in variation ever since the Great Depression. What should be, and often is, New York’s major asset, its diverse population, frequently becomes gangs of special interests courted by nearly all candidates for the mayoralty. Fred Siegel makes an excellent point in The Prince of the City, his political biography of Rudolph Giuliani, when he notes that until the 1980’s, New York’s municipal government behaved as though the Depression was an ongoing event. For example, through the 1970’s, rent control applied to all apartments within city limits. Until this law was modified during the administration of Edward Koch, landlords could not increase the rent of continuing tenants. Tenants who had signed apartment leases in 1940 were still paying 1940’s rates thirty years later. What is more, such tenants could transfer their leases to immediate family members, who would continue the boondoggle.
One can argue, and Siegel comes close to doing so, that New York runs with something approaching passable efficiency only when a benevolent tyrant, a philosopher-king, or a feisty billionaire administers it. Indeed, the very title of his book evokes the most famous political catechism of all, Il principe, (wr. 1513, pb. 1532; The Prince, 1640) of Nicolò Machiavelli. Before Giuliani and Bloomberg, the prevailing mythology was willing to settle for an honest machine bureaucrat such as Abraham Beame, who was mayor from 1974 to 1977, or a colorful but honest character such as Koch, who held the office from 1978 to 1989. The endearing image of La Guardia reading the Sunday comics to a radio audience during a newspaper strike softened the fact that such disruptions occurred with dismaying regularity.
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