When I first heard there was an effort underway to resurrect the image of New York Mayor John Lindsay, I thought it had to be a joke. Lindsay’s failure as a politician was near-total, and his philosophical evisceration at the hands of William F. Buckley, Jr. was so thorough, one could argue the mayor never recovered from it — WFB’s 1965 run remains the most effective campaign to ever achieve a mere 13% of the vote.
The great feelgood hope Lindsay represented as a handsome advocate for liberal ideas — whose campaign motto was “He is fresh and everyone else is tired” and who promised to turn New York into “Fun City” — was swiftly exposed as so much bluster, lacking in solutions and seriousness, incapable of dealing with the challenges of governance. Strikes and a snowstorm became political disasters, and six years after his election, a Gallup poll found only 9% of New Yorkers approved of his approach. As Vincent Cannato writes:
Lindsay represented a new kind of liberal politics, a top-down coalition of affluent white liberals, young people and minorities that was less attentive to the needs of the working- and middle class… Like Mr. Obama, John Lindsay had a messianic quality. He was the shining knight sent to slay the city’s “power brokers.” Sure of the rightness of his policies, Lindsay spoke in moralistic tones. But he could be prickly and thin-skinned and quick to impute base motives to political opponents. Well into his mayoralty, he continued to blame many of his problems on his predecessor.
Lindsay gave New York a more active government, bloated city worker budgets, pairing increased spending with the creation of the city’s income and commuter taxes. He left the city in horrible fiscal shape, one no amount of charisma could overcome.
Perhaps he just never found the right ass to kick.