The Man Who Saved New York: Hugh Carey and the Great Fiscal Crisis of 1975
Seymour P. Lachman and Robert Polner
Excelsior Editions
Hardcover, 229 pages, $24.95

America’s Mayor: John V. Lindsay and the Reinvention of New York
Edited by Sam Roberts
Columbia University Press
Paper, 256 pages $29.95

In the 1996 cult classic "Kingpin," Woody Harrelson plays Roy Munson, an aging loser filled with regret over his squandering of great talent and high hopes. In one scene, someone makes reference to "getting Musoned." Harrelson does a double take. Munsoned? The other guy explains: "You know. Munsoned. To be up a creek without a paddle. To have the world in the palm of your hand and then blow it. It's a figure of speech." Harrelson recoils at the realization that his name has become synonymous with failure.

From the time he left City Hall on New Year's Eve 1973 until his death in 2000, former Mayor John Lindsay was often confronted with a similar realization. Elected to City Hall in 1965 after three terms in Congress, the handsome, liberal Republican was hailed as "fresh when everyone else was tired." But after his two terms, and especially after the fiscal crisis that closely followed Lindsay's departure from office, he was held to personify everything that had gone wrong with New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s: Rising crime and welfare dependency, disinvestment and flight, racial polarization and fiscal irresponsibility.

Hugh Carey, the 91-year-old former governor, suffers a different problem. A Congressman who served as New York's governor for two terms and was considered a potential candidate for national office, Carey is an all-but-forgotten figure. While Lindsay's name is mocked, Carey's is rarely breathed. This is especially true in accounts of the fiscal crisis in which he played a courageous and central role. Credit is heaped on financiers like Felix Rohatyn and labor leaders like Victor Gotbaum for steering the city—and by extension the state—through. Carey escapes both blame and praise.

One-time colleagues in the House, both players in the drama of the fiscal crisis, the two politicians are also linked another way: Both embraced a higher, nobler form of politics than is familiar today, albeit with vastly different results.

Hope's aftermath

"America's Mayor: John V. Lindsay and the Reinvention of New York," which accompanies a dazzling exhibit on the Lindsay years which runs through October 3rd at the Museum of the City of New York, is not as detailed an examination of New York's 103rd mayor as Vincent Cannato's "The Ungovernable City." But where Cannato focused his conservative lens mainly on Lindsay's failures, the new collection of essays edited by the New York Times' Sam Roberts brings a less ideological and broader view.

Lindsay's reputation for weakening the police department—largely because of his support for a civilian review board, the losing side in a brutal referendum battle with the cop union—is challenged by Nicholas Pileggi. Yes, Linday's demanded that police use restraint. But this was coupled with a shift in strategy toward sending overwhelming numbers of blue shirts into the streets when disorder threatened. The more cops who showed up, the less likely that there'd be a reason for any of them to break out the batons. Lindsay's police department also embraced statistical approaches to crime-fighting, and the mayor fought for and won a fourth shift of cops on the street.

The increase in municipal workers wages under Lindsay, typically seen as an indication of political cowardice and a cause of the fiscal crisis, was more than that, Joshua Freeman notes: "When Lindsay took office, many city employees lived in poverty, or close to it. By the time he left office, city workers' earnings had risen sharply and their benefits had greatly improved, allowing them to live far more comfortable lives."

Charles Morris credits Lindsay for real improvements in the management of the city, like developing tracking systems that measured the productivity of public service delivery. But also exposes Lindsay's Achilles' heel: A committed and eloquent champion for the rights of minorities, he was unable to understand how his focus on the problems of blacks and Hispanics affected whites, "many of whom had only precarious perches in the middle class."

Others delve into Lindsay's contributions to the public image of the city through encouraging the use of city streets as movie sets, his view of New York as a not just a place to work and live but to explore and enjoy, his deeply flawed but nonetheless complex record on finances: Lindsay battled—although not hard enough—against some of the very fiscal gimmicks that history accused him of embracing. He gets credit for attracting energetic and skilled people to government. Pete Hamill, while acknowledging the mayor's deep weaknesses, honors Lindsay's walk into angry crowds in Harlem the day Martin Luther King was slain. "John Lindsay that night confronted the dragons of a possible urban apocalypse," Hamill writes. "There are men and women alive today who might have died that night except for Lindsay's uncommon valor."

All in all, it becomes obvious that there is no all in all; giving any mayor of New York an overall grade is like asking someone what the weather was like in the 1980s: the whole cannot accurately reflect the parts. Still, Kenneth Jackson gives it a shot. As time passes, he says, "Lindsay is beginning to look better."

The rescuer

At one point in the fall of 1975, with New York City a few hours away from defaulting on payments that it owed bondholders, people who held city notes began lining up at the Municipal Building to cash them in before they became worthless. City lawyers made out a bankruptcy petition. How close was the nation's largest city to the abyss? A police car was kept running outside City Hall, ready to make a mad dash to a federal bankruptcy judge.

The trip never had to be made, because the crisis was averted—one of a series of distinct fiscal emergencies and near misses within the larger drama of the fiscal crisis detailed in "The Man Who Saved New York: Hugh Carey and the Great Fiscal Crisis of 1975," by former State Senator Seymour Lachman and one-time Newsday scribe Rob Polner. The city's emergence from the crisis—caused when credit markets soured on the short-term debt that New York floated to stave off the crushing bills it could not pay—was a painful saga. But had bankruptcy occurred, it might have been far worse, not just for the city but for the state and other cities and states, too, whose bondholders would be spooked enough by New York's demise to sell anything attached to the public fisc.