Book review V: The Ungovernable City by Vincent J. Cannato
This is Cannato’s first book, and you can tell. His history of New York city from 1965 to 1973 is overlong and occasionally ponderous, because Cannato leaves no observer out. Journalists from The Village Voice, The New Republic, and the Daily News are quoted nearly every time Lindsay makes a decision or hits the campaign trail.
It’s a shame the book is so hard to get through, because it rubs up against greatness. The story of Lindsay – a liberal Republican congressman who twice won the mayoralty on a big government platform – is the story of late 60s politics. A handsome, vigorous politician, Lindsay quickly alienated supporters by approaching each issue as though only he could solve it before allowing an aide to cave in. MTA organizers who started a strike on Lindsay’s first day in office were granted a pay raise. Black radicals were given funding and legitimacy in school board disputes. The police department was turned into a political football, subject to “citizen complaint review boards,” and crime skyrocketed as a result. In 1969 Lindsay lost the Republican nomination, to the delight of Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller – reading about that election today is like watching the country swing to the right in real time.
Cannato’s sampling of the contemporary press can be fun. Reporters covered the 1969 election as if conservatism would destroy the city. He quotes one journalist claiming that right-wing Democrat Mario Proccacino would create a New York where “people were shooting each other.” The author notes: “As if that weren’t happening already.” The final chapter recalls Lindsay’s 1993 endorsment of David Dinkins, his defeat, and the way Rudy Giuliani used the policies that so frightened 60s journalists to bring the city back to life.