jimsleeper.com » A Fresh Look at John Lindsay and Liberal Leaders’ American Dilemma

A Fresh Look at John Lindsay and Liberal Leaders’ American Dilemma

By Jim Sleeper – May 6, 2010, 12:15PM

If the graying of Barack Obama as a herald of progressive change is getting you down, consider “Fun City Revisited,” the new PBS documentary about John Lindsay, New York City’s heraldic young mayor and presidential hopeful during the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s. (“Fun City Revisited: The Lindsay Years” can be viewed in its entirety via its website.)

The Lindsay story won’t exactly cheer you up, but it’ll remind you that some things seemed even worse back then: American cities and backwaters were imploding on racial hatreds and economic undertows; the whole country was exploding over the Vietnam War. Lindsay — elected only two years after the assassination of another dashing, young, Ivy League champion — revived the promise of elite liberal leadership in a style that recalled JFK’s and anticipated Obama’s. It also discredited that promise, but not without offering the lesson that we need an open, circulating elite, but one whose members would be trained with a depth and discipline that we’ve lost.

The old elite liberal leadership style involved more than just youth and charisma. It had streaks of moralism and naivete about the things that new configurations of corporate and finance capital were doing to American society. But the documentary shows in Lindsay three additional qualities that have made his liberalism and that of JFK and Obama credible, even when not successful:

1. Each of them had an aloof, almost aristocratic, intelligence, borne partly of a good liberal education. When coupled with character, that intelligence kept each man from losing his cool under pressure, even when it opened up no clear solutions. (By the way, “aristocratic” didn’t necessarily mean “rich:” Lindsay wasn’t even as well off as Obama, the best-selling author, and Kennedy’s wealth was “new,” not aristocratic. Intelligence and character mattered more: They were “disinterested” in the civic-republican sense of that term, which means that they didn’t often put their personal or special “interests” ahead of the republic. Like Plato’s guardians, they identified themselves so deeply with the republic that they let it define their self-interest more than vice-versa.)

Each of them made some colossal misjudgments: Evan Thomas’ The Very Best Men shows that Kennedy tinkered timorously but fatally with the Bay of Pigs invasion plan. The PBS documentary shows Lindsay being too moralistic with some unions when he should have been more Machiavellian. Obama has been too Machiavellian with corporate and finance capital, when he should be pushing their substantial reconfiguration, as the “aristocratic” Roosevelts weren’t hesitant to do.

Kennedy, Lindsay, and Obama have seen further ahead of their own time than have most other politicians, and each has walked (sometimes too slowly, but in Lindsay’s case perhaps too rapidly) toward those distant horizons instead of getting mired in the political passions and preferments of the moment. A serious liberal education will do that for you — or to you — if it’s coupled with character training, their second shared quality:

2. They had something called “sand” and certain essential public virtues. “Behind all the hurly burly of organized college activity lay something called the Yale spirit – usually called ‘sand’ by the undergraduates,” writes Brooks Mather Kelley of the college life that shaped Lindsay. “Sand was placed under the wheels of locomotives to make them go, and sand – grit, determination, ‘persistence, reliability, self-reliance, and willingness to face the consequences of one’s actions’ – was what made Yale undergraduate life go.”

Learning to face the consequences of one’s actions often comes only from rites of passage early in one’s life – tests of courage, prowess, and dedication that bond youths to one another and the larger society in their most impressionable, formative years under the guidance of ratifying elders.

At the schools and colleges Kennedy, Lindsay, and Obama attended, extracurricular regimens and studies of the classic epics and disputations taught that self-denial for a common good requires first a self that is strong enough to deny: What might seem just a row of automatons rowing down a river is really a seething cauldron of eight private struggles against fear and infirmity, refined to a common identity and purpose.

At its best, such training can stimulate a quiet readiness to take responsibility without sure reward; a capacity to bear pain with grace (if only because spiritual grace seems thereby assured); and a direct if understated felicity in speech and bearing, including self-scrutiny and a self-deprecating humor that deflects others’ envy and perhaps one’s own doubts about privilege. Americans have seen this in all three men, whose training linked liberal education’s Truth-seeking to the civic arts and disciplines of republican Power-wielding.

The Yale graduates of Lindsay’s time prided themselves “on being good teammates and knowing how to win. Believing that success was virtuous, they respected and rewarded dedication and ‘grit,’ the personality traits that could decide a close contest. Valuing tact and consideration, they subjected their personal interests to those of the group,” writes Isaiah Wilner in a book about the two Yale grads who founded TIME magazine in the early 1920s.

Some Yale men, like the social activists Dwight Macdonald (a descendant of two of the college’s early Puritan presidents) William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Dave Dellinger, and Staughton Lynd also carried a strain of the old Calvinist conviction that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God. At times, they actually inspired or provoked others to live by it. Lindsay carried that strain, too.

3. They also knew how to sustain trust in networking to wield power for interests besides their own. People who get their sand and moral steel from early rites of passage know how to bond and work together later on in life, outflanking demagoguery. Whenever tea-partiers, religious fundamentalists, or racist militias reprise Joe McCarthy’s terrors of the 1950s, serious public leadership knows that such rampages will crest at around 40 percent of the population — if a society’s best standard-bearers can draw themselves up, tell one another, “We can’t have this,” and work together to deflect and defang the worst of it.

To do that, good leaders have to trust one another in ways the old rites taught them to do. “To a remarkable extent, this place has detected and rejected the very few who wear the colors of high purpose falsely,” Yale’s president Kingman Brewster, Jr. told my entering class in September, 1965. “This has not been done by administrative edict or official regulation [but]by a pervasive ethic of student and faculty loyalty and responsibility and mutual regard which lies deep in our origins and traditions.”

It’s easy to dismiss Brewster’s pride in this collective capacity for mutual scrutiny as nothing but a defense of clubby elitism and its conceits. Sometimes, it is just that. Writing in my class’ 25th anniversary class book, Thomas McNamee acknowledged that “one of the skills useful to a befogged Yale undergraduate is the ability to write down under-informed over-generalizations with an air of easy grandeur” and that “optimism and confidence, even when forced or false, enhance performance.”

You can see some of that in Lindsay, too, and in Kennedy. But Brewster justified his ideal of a self-reinforcing logic of trust when he wrote, in a passage that is now the epitaph on his grave in New Haven, ”The presumption of innocence is not just a legal concept. In commonplace terms it rests on that generosity of spirit which assumes the best, not the worst, of the stranger.”

JFK, Lindsay, and Obama have certainly held true to that admonition to extend trust cannily, not naively, in ways that actually do elicit trust from others and thereby enhance strengths in a free society that wealth can’t buy and that national-security strategies alone can’t guarantee.

For example, one of the first honorary doctorates Brewster gave, at Yale’s 1964 Commencement, was to Martin Luther King, Jr., who’d just been released from jail. Brewster understood, as Lindsay did, that poor black churchgoers who walked trembling into tense Southern squares were re-enacting The Exodus from slavery to freedom, opening the hearts of astonished northern WASPS and Jews whose ancestors (including Brewster’s own) had made history of that same Exodus myth in ages past.

Watching King on television from the White House during the 1963 March on Washington, Kennedy understood this, too. His own speech to the nation on civil rights shortly before his death testified to his commitment to a civic-republican community transcending time, space, and political self-interest. Doing that, at tremendous political risk, required sand, moral steel, and public trust.

The documentary shows Lindsay, too, bearing brave moral witness to that commitment as he walks through Harlem after riots in 1967 and after King’s assassination a year later. I’ve written more than a little about his blind spots and blunders, and in the film I say a little more about that. But there’s no question that his presence on the streets actually made a difference, because ordinary people still trusted civic-republican leadership like his and like that of the martyred Jack Kennedy’s soon-to-be martyred brother Bobby. Somewhat similarly, Brewster’s own leadership helped keep Yale from blowing up in 1970, as Columbia and Kent State had done not long before.

People could feel these leaders’ sand, steel, and trust, and they trusted them, knowing that they’d earned their prerogatives through self-sacrifice and moral imagination.

Narrow ideological partisanship was secondary, and party affiliation was tertiary. Not always, of course, and not always advisably. But even Lindsay’s most formidable opponent in the 1965 mayoral race, William F. Buckley, Jr., who ran on the Conservative Party line, was a product of a Yale civic-republican training that, when it worked, nourished friendships across ideological lines: Late in his life, drawing, perhaps, on what he’d learned in his early rites of passage, Buckley sensed that conservative ideologues had strayed from the civic-republican depths and comity he valued more deeply than he did the fatuous ideas he’d preached, at 24, in God and Man at Yale.

Among Buckley’s lifelong left-liberal friends was the columnist Murray Kempton, who helped Lindsay in 1965 by writing, “He is fresh, and everyone else is tired.” That became a Lindsay campaign slogan, but New York Times reporter Sam Roberts, who has edited a companion volume of essays to go with the PBS documentary, notes that when Lindsay was reminded of it many years later, he quipped, “We’re tired, and everyone else is dead.” If one knew how he’d been trained, one feels in that riposte the sand and self-deprecating humor he’d absorbed so much earlier in life.

You see a little of this in the documentary. Kennedy’s Harvard imparted some it, too; think of the Roosevelts and Al Gore. (And when you think of Dick Cheney flunking out of Yale in 1961, you begin to sense his misunderstandings of where republican strength really comes from and how it’s best defended.)

By the time George W. Bush was at Yale a few years later — in the Class of 1968, while Lindsay was mayor — the old rites of passage were breaking down, although not for everyone: John Kerry (’66) and Howard Dean (’71) were there, too. While some resentment of Ivy graduates now is manufactured by conservatives who still consider their colleges too “liberal,” more of it comes from people who’ve lost faith that these wunderkinds, liberal or conservative, still earn and uphold their leadership roles in the ways I’ve been sketching here.

Fortunately, great American leaders are trained in lots of other places — church basements, Little League lots, immigrant settlement houses, public schools, state universities, historically black colleges, labor unions, and social and political movements. I’ve been learning recently that a staggering number of these seedbeds of public leadership — including Obama’s high school in Hawaii — were founded or led by people trained with a fateful, almost missionary intensity in rites of passage at Yale. But what really counts is that a republic have an open, circulating “elite” of leaders drawn from many sources but trained with depth and discipline for their work.

As a candidate in 2008, Obama evoked and, of course, embodied some of what Brewster had honored in King and what Lindsay had walked through Harlem to affirm. But is Obama marching alone? Or, worse, has he donned the colors of high purpose falsely, as even some leftists now claim?

Obama is probably wiser than Lindsay was in deploying his public virtues against daunting odds. He understands that another liberal capitalist War on Poverty wouldn’t conquer poverty any more than Reaganite free-marketeering has done. But he also believes that no leftist war on capitalism would do it, either. It will take strong leadership that inspires trust to strike a plausible balance among bleak options.

Knowing this doesn’t guarantee that Obama will make sounder judgments, let alone achieve any more than Lindsay or Kennedy did; and both of them failed, albeit for very different reasons. What worries me more is that the spiritually deep convictions and rites of passage that produced good leadership are indeed breaking down under riptides of consumer marketing and reckless disinvestment that only civic-republican leadership, widely diffused, might counter and channel.

Our patriots of the moment don’t know this, or can’t face it. They certainly don’t acknowledge that a liberal capitalist republic has to rely ultimately on virtues and beliefs that neither the liberal state itself nor markets can nourish or enforce. Somehow, liberal leaders have to be nurtured all the more intensively.

Yale did that, and Obama found his own nourishment for leadership in bits and pieces from his mother, his high school, Columbia, and Harvard Law, as well as on Chicago’s South Side in a black branch of the United Church of Christ, the Congregational church of Kingman Brewster’s Puritan ancestors. Obama wasn’t faking this in the campaign, but he was re-discovering its limits as well as its necessity.

The need to regenerate great civic-republican leadership is an American Dilemma. Only if we can address it can we develop better strategies for the tsunamis and undertows that are upon us. If “establishment” liberals can’t muster more of what the Roosevelts, Kennedys, Lindsay, and countless unsung civic leaders did, and adapt it for our time, as Obama has promised to do, then Americans will never trust liberals to help them detect and reject those who wear the colors of high purpose falsely.

PBS airs ‘Fun City Revisited: The Lindsay Years’

Tue 04 May 2010


Multiple Page View

THE DOCUMENTARY “Fun City Revisited: The Lindsay Years”

WHEN | WHERE Thursday night at 8 on WNET /13; also Wednesday at 10 p.m. on WLIW /21

REASON TO WATCH Overview of eight tumultuous years (1965-73), by veteran PBS producer Tom Casciato.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT “Tall . . . patrician . . . blue-eyed” are words that went with two-term New York City Mayor John Lindsay to his grave, and you won’t avoid them here. He was the Hollywood mayor in the big, troubled city. He was “fresh [when] everyone else is tired,” in columnist Murray Kempton ‘s memorable assessment. A Republican in name only, he tried to heal racial divides and only widened them, according to some critics. A minute after his inauguration on Jan. 1, 1966, transit union chief Mike Quill – who puckishly referred to the new mayor as “Lindsley” – called a strike, forcing New Yorkers to walk increasingly dangerous and (soon) dirty streets. A garbage strike followed and a bitter teachers’ one, too – the dispute in Ocean Hill / Brownsville was bungled by Lindsay and nearly shattered the fragile proto-Rainbow coalition he had tried to build.

Cast off by the Republicans because of political differences, he narrowly won re-election in 1969, running on the Liberal Party line. Two years later, he became a Democrat and unsuccessfully sought the party’s nomination for president in 1972, giving critics more ammo.

MY SAY There are many fair-minded appraisals of Lindsay here, notably by former Newsday columnists such as Jimmy Breslin and Jim Sleeper, and even onetime Newsday reporter Dick Aurelio, also a Lindsay aide. But an ex-Times reporter offers the most arresting image.

Joyce Purnick says that when she saw Lindsay leave City Hall on his last day in ’73, he was crying: “What a way to end this experiment in modern progressive liberal leadership, glassy-eyed in tears.” Lindsay was certainly not a wimp – he won five battle stars in the Navy during World War II , then spent eight years battling New Yorkers – but to this day, the word “sad” is appended to him as well.

The documentary tries to erase that troubling word, but the essence of Lindsay – who died in 2000 – still eludes its grasp. More time was needed.

Long after leaving public office, he tried different jobs, even as part-time host of ” Good Morning America ,” and was so financially stressed that Mayor Rudy Giuliani had to give him a ceremonial gig so he could get health insurance.

BOTTOM LINE Not quite a total reappraisal, the show still establishes that Lindsay had an enduring triumph – his embrace of black New Yorkers. Sometimes just a single triumph in any long political career, especially one of this magnitude, is enough.