A lawyer and politician, John Vliet Lindsay (born 1921) was a member of the U.S. Congress from 1959 to 1965 and mayor of New York from 1966 to 1973. He was one of the most publicly visible and controversial urban leaders of his time.
John Vliet Lindsay was born November 24, 1921, into a family of five children of George Nelson Lindsay, an investment banker of English descent, and Florence Eleanor Vliet Lindsay. This upper class Episcopalian family sent young John Lindsay to St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, and then on to Yale for a B.A. degree in 1943. Entering the U.S. Naval Reserve as an ensign officer in May of that year, Lindsay served as a gunnery officer during World War II, earning five battle stars and the rank of senior lieutenant at his discharge in 1946. He received a law degree from Yale in 1948. The following year he was admitted to the New York state bar and joined the law firm of Webster, Sheffield, Fleischmann, Hitchcock, and Christie. In 1949 he married Mary Anne Hutchinson, a Vassar graduate and former school teacher who bore him three daughters—Katherine, Margaret, and Anne—and a son, John, Jr.
Active as Young Republican leader during Dwight D. Eisenhower's first presidential campaign, Lindsay attracted the attention of U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr., who invited him to serve as executive assistant in Washington, D.C., in 1955-1956. Acting as liaison between the Justice Department and the White House, Lindsay helped draft legislation including the Civil Rights Bill of 1957.
Returning to New York City, Lindsay ran for Congress from a wealthy central Manhattan district which included Fifth and Park avenues. He won election in 1958 as well as reelection in 1960, 1962, and 1964. Although representing a "silk stocking" district, he became known as one of the most liberal Republicans in the House and advanced and supported measures for civil rights, civil liberties, medical insurance for aged citizens, a larger federal role for cities, and liberal immigration policies. Often a maverick, he annoyed his own party leadership when he supported a Democratic president's proposal to enlarge the House Rules Committee, and in 1964 he declined to support the Republican candidate for the presidency, Barry Goldwater. Nonetheless, he was reelected by a sizable margin that year.
Tall, handsome, photogenic, and untainted by New York's "clubhouse politics, " Lindsay was an appealing figure when he ran for mayor in 1965 and won the overwhelming support of African-Americans, Puerto Rican, and liberal and reformist voters. Winning a three-candidate election, Lindsay was the first Republican to sit in the mayor's chair since 1945. Although heralded as an "urban messiah" during his first election—which a writer in Newsweek magazine called the first step in "The Making of the President, 1972"—Lindsay had much more difficulty in 1969 when he lost the Republican mayoral primary and was re-elected as a Liberal-Independent, garnering only 41 percent of the vote in a three-candidate race. By then the burdens of mayoring in America's largest city had taken their toll and considerably diminished his popularity.
Lindsay's record as mayor is a mixture of notable successes and some spectacular failures. He reorganized and consolidated 50 city departments and agencies into ten and brought efficiency and professional administration into several city departments. He cultivated good relations with New York's minorities and sought to decentralize city government with neighborhood city halls. His "ghetto walks" in 1967 and 1968 were credited with maintaining racial peace in New York when other big cities exploded with racial violence and burning.
Lindsay's first administration saw a doubling of welfare spending and a generous increase in pensions and in the number of city workers, and the city budget grew massively from $3.8 to $6.1 billion. On the negative side Lindsay was plagued by chronically bad relations with municipal unions and a series of crippling strikes. On his first day in office, strikers closed down the city's transit system and later exacted a large 15 percent pay increase and generous pension bonuses. Later, when New York City nearly went bankrupt in 1975, critics recalled that generous transit settlement as the first of a series of millstones that almost sank the city into insolvency.
Lindsay's support of a decentralized school system, which included a proposal to turn over hiring teachers to local neighborhoods, brought him three strikes and a bitter controversy which polarized the city and in which the African-American community and the Jewish community accused each other of "racism" and "anti-Semitism." Lindsay lost the "Ocean Hill-Brownsville" school fight, which the mayor later described as "the low point of my career." The mayor also was defeated by a thumping 2 to 1 majority by voters in his effort to establish a civilian review board to consider citizen complaints against the police. Meanwhile, to meet soaring expenditures the city had to enact an income tax in 1966, to double subway fares, and to obtain increased state and federal aid.
In 1971 Lindsay had switched to the Democratic Party and entered the presidential primaries the following year, only to be beaten soundly in two states and to withdraw with no noticable impact upon the nomination process. In 1973 Lindsay, his popularity at a low point, announced his decision not to run for a third term, saying it was based upon "personal considerations." He added in a New York Times article by Sam Roberts: "My love for this city and the work still to be done have tempted me to carry on. Eight years is too short a time, but long enough for one man." He failed to endorse any candidate in either the primary or the general election, both of which were won by the city's Comptroller Abe Beame. Lindsay's political career was probably damaged irreparably by New York's fiscal crisis in the mid-1970's for which he was held accountable. Although willing to "take the blame where it is due, " Linday insisted with good reason that he was not wholly at fault for New York almost going bankrupt. In 1980 Lindsay entered the Democratic primary race for U.S. senator from New York but ran third with only 17 percent of the vote, losing to Elizabeth Holtzman.
After leaving the Mayor's office, Linday returned to the legal profession, served as television commentator for ABC's "Good Morning America, " and was the author of three books: Journey into Politics (1966), The City (1970), and The Edge (1976). By the early 1980s, Lindsay's reputation had begun to rise again. In 1981 he was appointed by Mayor Ed Koch as a trade representative for the city, going overseas to urge businesses to invest in New York. The next year he chaired a committee which examined ways to relieve overcrowding in the courts, and became Chairman of the Port Authority Board. In 1984 Lindsay was appointed Chairman of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, a position he held until his retirement in 1988 following a heart operation. In the mid-1990s, he was in the process of writing a book of reflections on his life and prescriptions for problems facing New York and other large cities, Still On My Mind.
For information on Lindsay's political career and the perils of mayoring in New York City see Harry Stein, "An Exile in His Own City, " New York Times Magazine (January 8, 1978); Nat Henthoff, "The Mayor, " New Yorker (May 3 and 10, 1969); Woody Klein, Lindsay's Promise: The Dream That Failed (1970); and Roger Starr, "John V. Lindsay: A Political Portrait, " Commentary (February 1970). For insights into the school fight see Richard Reeves, "Here Comes the Next Mayor, " New York Times Magazine (November 2, 1969). Linday's speech announcing his decision not to run for reelection was printed in the the March 8th edition of the New York Times. Lindsay's chairing the commission on judicial reform was mentioned in "Plan Calls for Ex-Judges to Aid Courts, " New York Times (November 5, 1982) and his appointment as Chairman of Lincoln Center was discussed in "Lindsay to Announce Goals for Beaumont, " by Harold Schoenberg, New York Times (November 22, 1984). For Lindsay's political commitment and beliefs see John Corry, "The All-Star Race, " New York Times Biographical Service (June 1980) and also Lindsay's books mentioned in the text.