Lachman and Polner conclude that "in any narrative about the fiscal crisis ... Carey ... belongs at the center, although most historical and analytical accounts of the period have no put him there."
The authors make this case convincingly with a portrayal of Carey, who served as governor from 1975 through 1982, as a man whose background equipped him perfectly for the job. He was raised by a father who had displayed a gut-level aversion to bankruptcy during the Great Depression, instilling in Carey a deep, moral dread of insolvency. Charming and shrewd, during his time in Congress Carey befriended many of the men who would hold the city's fate in their hands when the governing came lobbying for federal help during New York's darkest hours. Carey was tough enough to brush off a Brooklyn political boss's death threat, and wise enough to surround himself with a crack team of advisers who helped navigate the crisis.
Through argument and compromise, he eventually managed to get a beleaguered mayor, embittered city unions, impatient bankers, upstate legislators and even a Republican president on the same page. He took risks ("The city is drowning and we have tied ourselves to them irreversibly," is how one Carey aide described the state's predicament) and played skillful backroom ball, calling in old chits and playing the occasional golf game to get bankers and Congress to line up behind New York. He somehow did so without surrendering the city's and state's last shreds of pride. "We need and deserve federal assistance," he told a Congressional committee. "We are not asking for a handout or a bailout."
It's an incredible story—dramatic, filled with larger than life personalities and moments when politicians in City Hall, Albany and Washington faced the choice between expediency and responsibility and chose right. Lachman and Polner do not revisit the standard explanation for the fiscal crisis; there is no hint of questions about whether the profligate city deserves so much of the blame and financial speculators so little. But they do provide an engrossing and accessible story of how the crisis unfolded, full of sudden storms, false dawns and Carey's sure voice "Bankruptcy for New York City is now behind us," Carey said when the immediate crisis passed. "Talk of collapse and chaos should now disappear."
Nothing separates these two histories of uncommon men as much as the relative role of the subjects' voices. Carey gave lengthy interviews with the authors and his insights on the events of the crisis year of 1975 clearly inform the Lachman and Polner book.
From Cannato's tome we know that Lindsay thought history had treated him unkindly. But in Roberts ' book, Lindsay's post-mayoral voice is absent but for a poignant moment when, at a reunion of his City Hall staff, someone quips that his 1965 campaign slogan: "He is fresh when everyone else is tired." No, Lindsay answered. "We are tired and everyone else is dead."
What links Lindsay's and Carey's stories is the hopeful politics that both represented: Lindsay, a liberal Republican who saw in government the capacity and obligation to effect social justice; Carey, an outer borough liberal Democrat and Kennedy acolyte who believed in a progressive, moral politics.
Lindsay's demise has come to be seen as a judgment that his vision was naive or just plain wrong. One can certainly argue with that. But there's no arguing that Carey, by traversing the fiscal crisis, opposing the death penalty, dispensing Solomonic justice on Attica and closing Willowbrook, delivered on his promise. Luckily, Lachman and Polner remember.