John Vliet Lindsay (/vliːt ˈlɪnᵈzi/; November 24, 1921 – December 19, 2000) was an American politician, lawyer, and broadcaster who was a U.S. congressman, mayor of New York City, candidate for U.S. president, and regular guest host of Good Morning America.
During his political career, he served as a member of the United States House of Representatives from January 1959 to December 1965 and as mayor of New York City from January 1966 to December 1973. He switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party in 1971, and launched a brief and unsuccessful bid for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination as well as the 1980 Democratic nomination for Senator from New York. He died from Parkinson's disease and pneumonia in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina on December 19, 2000.
Lindsay was born in New York City on West End Avenue, to George Nelson Lindsay and the former Florence Eleanor Vliet. He grew up in an upper-middle-class family of English and Dutch descent. Lindsay's paternal grandfather migrated to the United States in the 1880s from the Isle of Wight, and his mother was from an upper-middle-class family that had been in New York since the 1660s. Lindsay's father was a successful lawyer and investment banker. Lindsay attended the Buckley School, St. Paul's School and Yale, where he was admitted to the class of 1944 and joined Scroll and Key.
Military service and legal career
With the outbreak of World War II, Lindsay completed his studies early and in 1943 joined the United States Navy as a gunnery officer. He obtained the rank of lieutenant, earning five battle stars through action in the invasion of Sicily and a series of landings in the Pacific theater. After the war, he spent a few months as a ski bum and a couple of months training as a bank clerk before returning to New Haven, where he received his law degree from Yale Law School in 1948, ahead of schedule. In 1949, he began his legal career at the law firm of Webster, Sheffield, Fleischmann, Hitchcock & Chrystie.
Back in New York City, Lindsay met his future wife, Mary Anne Harrison (1926-2004), at the wedding of Nancy Bush (daughter of Connecticut's Senator Prescott Bush and sister of future President George Herbert Walker Bush), where he was an usher and Harrison a bridesmaid. A native of Richmond, Virginia and a resident of Greenwich, Connecticut, she was a graduate of Vassar College. Harrison was a distant relative of William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison. They married in 1949. That same year Lindsay was admitted to the bar, and rose to become a partner in his law firm four years later.
Like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who redecorated the White House, Mary Lindsay, a former educator, renovated Gracie Mansion, the official mayoral residence on Manhattan's Upper East Side. She died of cancer at the age of seventy-seven, four years after the passing of her husband.
Lindsay began gravitating toward politics as one of the founders of the Youth for Eisenhower club in 1951 and as president of the New York Young Republican club in 1952. He went on to join the United States Department of Justice in 1955 as executive assistant to Attorney General Herbert Brownell. There he worked on civil liberties cases as well as the 1957 Civil Rights Act. In 1958, with the backing of Brownell as well as Bruce Barton, John Aspinwall Roosevelt, and Mrs. Wendell Willkie, Lindsay won the Republican primary and went on to be elected to Congress as the representative of the "Silk Stocking" district, Manhattan's Upper East Side.
While in Congress, Lindsay established a liberal voting record increasingly at odds with his party. He was an early supporter of federal aid to education and Medicare; and advocated the establishment of a federal United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and a National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities. He was a leading member of a group of liberal and moderate Republicans in the House who voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He was called a maverick, casting the lone dissenting vote for a Republican-sponsored bill extending the power of the Postmaster General to impound obscene mail and one of only two dissenting votes for a bill allowing federal interception of mail from communist countries. Also known for his wit, when asked by his party leaders why he opposed legislation to combat communism and pornography, he replied that the two were the major industries of his district and if they were suppressed then "the 17th district would be a depressed area".
In 1965, Lindsay was elected Mayor of New York City as a Republican with the support of the Liberal Party of New York in a three-way race. He defeated Democratic mayoral candidate Abraham D. Beame, then City Comptroller, as well as National Review magazine founder William F. Buckley, Jr., who ran on the Conservative line. The unofficial motto of the campaign, taken from a Murray Kempton column, was "He is fresh and everyone else is tired".
On his first day as mayor, January 1, 1966, the Transport Workers Union of America, led by Mike Quill shut down the city with a complete halt of subway and bus service. As New Yorkers endured the transit strike, Lindsay remarked, "I still think it's a fun city," and walked four miles (6 km) from his hotel room to City Hall in a gesture to show it. Dick Schaap, then a columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, popularized the term in an article titled Fun City. In the article, Schaap sardonically pointed out that it wasn't.
In 1966 the settlement terms of the transit strike, combined with increased welfare costs and general economic decline, forced Lindsay to lobby the New York State legislature for a new municipal income tax and higher water rates for city residents, plus a new commuter tax for people who worked in the city but resided elsewhere.
The transit strike was the first of many labor struggles. In 1968 in an attempt to decentralize the city's school system, Lindsay granted three local school boards in the city complete control over their schools, in an effort to allow communities to have more of a say in their schools. The city's teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, however, saw the breakup as a way of union busting, as a decentralized school system would force the union to negotiate with 33 separate school boards rather than with one centralized body. As a result, in May 1968 several teachers working in schools located in the neighborhood of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, one of the neighborhoods where the decentralization was being tested, were fired from their jobs by the community-run school board. The UFT demanded the reinstatement of the dismissed teachers, citing that the teachers had been fired without due process. When their demands were ignored, the UFT called the first of three strikes, leading ultimately to a protracted citywide teachers' strike that stretched over a seven-month period between May and November. The strike was tinged with racial and anti-Semitic overtones, pitting black and Puerto Rican parents against Jewish teachers and supervisors. Many thought the mayor had made a bad situation worse by taking sides against the teachers. The episode left a legacy of tensions between blacks and Jews that went on for years, and Lindsay called it his greatest regret.
That same year, 1968, also saw a three-day Broadway strike and a nine-day sanitation strike. Quality of life in New York reached a nadir during the sanitation strike as mounds of garbage caught fire and strong winds whirled the filth through the streets. In June 1968, the New York City Police Department deployed snipers to protect Lindsay during a public ceremony, shortly after they detained a knife-wielding man who had demanded to meet the mayor. With the schools shut down, police engaged in a slowdown, firefighters threatening job actions, the city awash in garbage, and racial and religious tensions breaking to the surface, Lindsay later called the last six months of 1968 "the worst of my public life."
The summer of 1971 ushered in another devastating strike, as over 8,000 workers belonging to AFSCME District Council 37 walked off their jobs for two days. The strikers included the operators of the city's drawbridges and sewage treatment plants. Drawbridges over the Harlem River were locked in the "up" position, barring automobile travel into Manhattan, and hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw sewage flowed into local waterways.
Racial and civil unrest
Lindsay served on the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission. This body was established in 1967 by President Johnson after riots in urban centers of the US, including Newark and Detroit. Lindsay maximized publicity and coverage of his activities on the commission, and while other commissioners made inconspicuous visits to riot-damaged sites, Lindsay would alert the press before his fact-finding missions. Nonetheless, he was especially influential in producing the Kerner Report; its dramatic language of the nation "moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal" was his rhetoric.
President Lyndon B. Johnson ignored the report and rejected the Kerner Commission's recommendations. In April 1968, one month after the release of the Kerner report, rioting broke out in more than 100 cities following the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. However, in New York City, Lindsay traveled directly into Harlem, telling black residents that he regretted King's death and was working against poverty. He is credited with averting riots in New York with this direct response, even as other major cities burned. David Garth, who accompanied Lindsay that night, recalled: "There was a wall of people coming across 125th Street, going from west to east ... I thought we were dead. John raised his hands, said he was sorry. It was very quiet. My feeling was, his appearance there was very reassuring to people because it wasn't the first time they had seen him. He had gone there on a regular basis. That gave him credibility when it hit the fan."
On February 10, 1969, New York City was pummeled with 15 inches (380 mm) of snow. On the first day alone, 14 people died and 68 were injured. Within a day, the mayor was criticized for giving favored treatment to Manhattan at the expense of the other boroughs. Charges were made that a city worker elicited a bribe to clean streets in Queens. Over a week later, streets in eastern Queens still had remained unplowed by the city, enraging the borough's residents, many who felt that the city's other boroughs always took a back seat to Manhattan. Lindsay traveled to Queens, but his visit was not well received. His car could not make its way through Rego Park, and even in a four-wheel-drive truck, he had trouble getting around. In Kew Gardens Hills, the mayor was booed; one woman screamed, "You should be ashamed of yourself." In Fresh Meadows, a woman told the mayor: "Get away, you bum." Later during his walk through Fresh Meadows, another woman called him “a wonderful man”, prompting the mayor to respond: "And you’re a wonderful woman, not like those fat Jewish broads up there," pointing to women in a nearby building who had criticized him. The blizzard, dubbed the "Lindsay Snowstorm", prompted a political crisis that became "legendary in the annals of municipal politics" as the scenes conveyed a message that the mayor of New York was indifferent to the middle class and poor citizens of the city.
In 1969, a backlash against Lindsay caused him to lose the Republican mayoral primary to state Senator John J. Marchi, who was enthusiastically supported by William F. Buckley and the party conservatives. In the Democratic primary, the most conservative candidate, City Controller Mario Procaccino, defeated several more liberal contenders and won the nomination with only a plurality of the votes. "The more the Mario", he quipped. Procaccino went on to coin the term limousine liberal to describe incumbent Lindsay and his wealthy Manhattan backers.
Despite not having the Republican nomination, Lindsay was still on the ballot as the candidate of the New York Liberal Party. In his campaign he said "mistakes were made" and called being mayor of New York "the second toughest job in America." Two television advertisements described his position: In one he looked directly into the camera and said, "I guessed wrong on the weather before the city's biggest snowfall last winter. And that was a mistake. But I put 6,000 more cops on the streets. And that was no mistake. The school strike went on too long and we all made some mistakes. But I brought 225,000 more jobs to this town. And that was no mistake... And we did not have a Detroit, a Watts or Newark. And those were no mistakes. The things that go wrong are what make this the second toughest job in America. But the things that go right are those things that make me want it." The second opened with a drive through the Holland Tunnel from lower Manhattan toward New Jersey and suggested that, "Every New Yorker should take this trip at least once before election day..." followed by video of Newark, New Jersey which had been devastated by race riots.
While losing white ethnic, working-class voters, Lindsay was able to win with support from three distinct groups. First were the city's minorities, mostly African-Americans and Puerto Ricans, who were concentrated in Harlem, the South Bronx and various Brooklyn neighborhoods, including Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville. Second were the white and economically secure residents of certain areas of Manhattan. Third were the whites in the boroughs outside Manhattan who had a similar educational background and "cosmopolitan" attitude, namely residents of solidly middle-class neighborhoods, including Forest Hills and Kew Gardens in Queens and Brooklyn Heights in Brooklyn. This third category included many traditionally Democratic Jewish Americans, who had been put off by Procaccino's conservatism. This created a plurality coalition (42%) in Lindsay's second three-way race. His margin of victory rose from just over 100,000 more votes than his Democratic opponent in 1965 to over 180,000 votes over Procaccino in 1969, despite appearing on just one ballot line (see New York City Mayoral Elections)
On May 8, 1970, near the intersection of Wall Street and Broad Street and at New York City Hall, a riot started when about 200 construction workers mobilized by the New York State AFL-CIO labor federation attacked about 1,000 high school and college students and others protesting the Kent State shootings, the American invasion of Cambodia, and the Vietnam War. Some attorneys, bankers, and investment analysts from nearby Wall Street investment firms tried to protect many of the students but were themselves attacked, and some onlookers reported that the police stood by and did nothing. Although more than seventy people were injured, including four policemen, only six people were arrested. The following day, Lindsay severely criticized the police for their lack of action. Police Department labor leaders later accused Lindsay of "undermining the confidence of the public in its Police Department" by his statements and blamed the inaction on inadequate preparations and "inconsistent directives" in the past from the Mayor's office. Several thousand construction workers, longshoremen and white-collar workers protested against the mayor on May 11 and again on May 16. Protesters called Lindsay "the red mayor", "traitor", "Commie rat", and "bum". The Mayor described the mood of the city as "taut".
In 1970, The New York Times printed New York Police Department Patrolman Frank Serpico's claims of widespread police corruption and the Knapp Commission was eventually formed that April by Lindsay, with its investigations beginning in June, although public hearings did not start until October 18, 1971, its preliminary report was issued in August 1972, and final recommendations released on December 27, 1972.
Party switch and campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination
In 1971, Lindsay and his wife cut ties with the Republican Party by registering with the Democratic Party. Lindsay said, "In a sense, this step recognizes the failure of 20 years in progressive Republican politics. In another sense, it represents the renewed decision to fight for new national leadership." Lindsay then launched a brief and unsuccessful bid for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination. He attracted positive media attention and was a successful fundraiser. Lindsay did well in the early Arizona caucus, coming in second place behind Edmund Muskie of Maine and ahead of eventual nominee George McGovern of South Dakota. Then in the March 14 Florida primary, he placed a weak fifth place, behind George Wallace of Alabama, Muskie, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, and Scoop Jackson of Washington (though he did edge out McGovern). Among his difficulties was New York City's worsening problems, which Lindsay was accused of neglecting; a band of protesters from Forest Hills, Queens, who were opposed to his support for a low income housing project in their neighborhood, followed Lindsay around his aborted campaign itinerary to jeer and heckle him. His poor showing in Florida effectively doomed his candidacy. New York politician Meade Esposito called for Lindsay to end his campaign with the much-publicized comment "I think the handwriting is on the wall; Little Sheba better come home." After a poor showing in the April 5 Wisconsin primary, Lindsay formally abandoned the race.
In a 1972 Gallup poll, 60% of New Yorkers felt Lindsay's administration was working poorly, nine percent rated it good, and not one person thought its performance excellent. By 1978, The New York Times called Lindsay "an exile in his own city".
Lindsay's record remained controversial after he left politics. Historian Fred Siegel, calling Lindsay the worst New York City mayor of the 20th century, said "Lindsay wasn't incompetent or foolish or corrupt, but he was actively destructive". Journalist Steven Weisman observed "Lindsay's congressional career had taught him little of the need for subtle bureaucratic maneuvering, for understanding an opponent's self-interest, or for the great patience required in a sprawling government."
Lindsay's budget aide Peter C. Goldmark, Jr. told historian Vincent Cannato that the administration "failed to come to grips with what a neighborhood is. We never realized that crime is something that happens to, and in, a community." Assistant Nancy Seifer said "There was a whole world out there that nobody in City Hall knew anything about ... If you didn't live on Central Park West, you were some kind of lesser being." While many experts traced the city's mid-70's fiscal crisis to the Lindsay years, Lindsay disagreed, insisting that it may have come sooner if he had not imposed new taxes.
An alternate assessment was made by journalist Robert McFadden who said that "By 1973, his last year in office, Mr. Lindsay had become a more seasoned, pragmatic mayor." McFadden also credited him for reducing racial tensions, leading to the prevention of riots that plagued Detroit, Newark, Los Angeles, and other cities.
Mario Cuomo, Carl McCall, and Carter F. Bales were among the many people who started their careers in public service in the Lindsay administration. Rev. Al Sharpton has said that he still remembers Lindsay having walked the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem when these neighborhoods were doing poorly economically.
Lindsay also fought to transform the Civilian Complaint Review Board from an internal police-run department, into a public-minded agency with a citizen majority board. Initially and vociferously opposed by the police union, citizen oversight of police - which sprung from the American Civil Rights Movement - has since become an established institution in civic life, and Lindsay was a leader for it.
After leaving office, Lindsay returned to the law, but remained in the public eye as a commentator and regular guest host for ABC's Good Morning America. In 1975, Lindsay made a surprise appearance on The Tony Awards telecast in which he, along with a troupe of celebrity male suitors in tuxedos, sang "Mame" to Angela Lansbury. He presented the award for Best Director Of A Play to John Dexter for the play Equus. Lindsay also tried his hand at acting, appearing in Otto Preminger's Rosebud; the following year his novel, The Edge, was published (Lindsay had earlier authored two non-fiction memoirs): New York Times, in its contemporary review of the novel, said it was "as dead-serious as a $100-a-plate dinner of gray meat and frozen candidates' smiles." Attempting a political comeback in 1980, Lindsay made a long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senator from New York, and finished third. He was also active in New York City charities, serving on the board of the Association for a Better New York, and as chairman of the Lincoln Center Theater. On his death, New York Times credited Lindsay with a significant role in the rejuvenation of the theatre.
Medical bills from his Parkinson's disease, heart attacks, and stroke depleted Lindsay's finances, as did the collapse of two law firms where he worked, and he found himself without health insurance. Lindsay's eight years of service as Mayor left him seven years short of qualifying for a city pension. In 1996, with support from City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani appointed Lindsay to two largely ceremonial posts to make him eligible for municipal health insurance coverage. He and his wife Mary moved to a retirement community in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, in November 1999, where he died on December 19, 2000 at the age of seventy-nine of complications from pneumonia and Parkinson's disease.
In 2000, Yale Law School created a fellowship program named in Lindsay's honor. In 1998, a park in Brooklyn, Lindsay Triangle, was named in his honor, and in 2001, the East River Park was renamed in his memory. In December 2013, South Loop Drive in Manhattan's Central Park was renamed after Lindsay, to commemorate his support for a car-free Central Park.
He was featured on a poster picture with Governor Rockefeller at the groundbreaking of the former World Trade Center in the city history section of the Museum of the City of New York at Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street. A Mitchell-Lama Development in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn has been erroneously thought to have been named after Mayor Lindsay (Lindsay Park). This development was actually named after Congressman George W. Lindsay (1865–1938) (no relation).