Not being a New Yorker, I’ve refrained from comment on the legacy of former New York mayor Ed Koch, someone whose identity was completely tangled up in Gotham politics, culture and economics. I appreciated Kathleen Geier’s visceral comments about Koch here at PA yesterday, and her recommendation of Richard Kim’s piece in Nation about the man’s baleful effect on the policy response to the AIDS epidemic in New York.
But I do want to draw attention to Joan Walsh’s self-consciously complicated take on Koch at Salon, and particularly her argument that you can’t quite understand his legacy without considering the man who was in many respects his mirror image: John Lindsay, mayor of New York from 1966-74.
Growing up in New York, I saw the city of liberal Republican Lindsay become the domain of conservative Democrat Koch, all before I turned twenty, as bitter battles over race, education, unions, cops, and crime shattered the urban birthplace of the New Deal. As New York gathers to remember Koch at a memorial Monday morning, it’s worth thinking about the two mayors, as bookends to an era that began with optimism and ended in cynicism about the multiracial promise of urban America.
Many consider Koch’s rapid transition from being a pillar of the liberal “reform” tradition in New York to representing outer-borough rage at the city’s version of the modern welfare state an act of pure political opportunism. But it’s hard to beat John Lindsay as a symbol of crazily churning political coalitions, as the man who in August of 1968 seconded the vice-presidential nomination of Spiro T. Agnew became in just over a year the third-party (Liberal) candidate who won re-election by a plurality after running a campaign about 90 degrees to the left of the Democratic nominee. Before his embattled second term as mayor was over, he had switched parties and run a brief presidential campaign aimed at outflanking George McGovern as the candidate of the serious antiwar Left.
The coalition Koch put together in 1977 and beyond was very much a reaction to Lindsay’s, and as Walsh points out, the fracturing of New York’s always tenuous New Deal Democratic coalition was largely the product of traumatic events in New York itself:
Lindsay made two early moves to ignite the political reaction against him, supporting a Civilian Police Review Board as well as the Ocean Hill/Brownsville experiment in community control of schools…. With broad support from opinion makers like The New York Times, and Republicans including Sen. Jacob Javits and Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Lindsay appointed the review board – and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association organized a ballot measure to repeal it. Against a backdrop of rising crime, the repeal passed thanks to an alliance of outer-borough Jews and “white ethnic” Catholics (my people): 83 percent of white Catholics backed the measure, but so did 55 percent of Jews. Liberal Manhattan was stunned.
Coming the next year, Lindsay’s Ocean Hill/Brownsville experiment pitted the largely Jewish teachers’ union against deeply frustrated black parents in one of Brooklyn’s poorest neighborhoods. It would crystallize the charges of “black anti-Semitism” that Koch would later use to explain away the black community’s entirely valid opposition to his agenda.
These traumas mattered beyond New York not just because of their impact on an entire generation of thinkers and writers–believe me, they are still arguing about Ocean Hill/Brownsville in particular–but because they illustrated that the loss of self-confidence and political momentum among liberals in the 1970s wasn’t just a product of racial reaction in the South or the disaster of the Vietnam War. While it’s not entirely fair to view Archie Bunker as the quintessential Koch voter, it’s not entirely wrong, either.