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Is Lindsay Too Tall to Be Mayor?

For there always has been natural dislike by the mountain people for the ones living down at the foot. "Do you live in town?" is a question I'm always asked in Manhattan. "Yes," I answer. "What part?" I am asked. "Forest Hills,” I answer. It is greeted with a frown. "Oh, that's not the city, that's Long Island."

Now, after years of this, it is very common around this city to hear people like Jimbo, from the Lindy's Car Service on Fresh Pond Road in Ridgewood, Queens, saying, "I go to the city once in a while. When I feel like Chink food, I go downtown in the city. Otherwise, what do I got to go for? I stay around the neighborhood."

So while John Lindsay went through the simple task of raising the microphone at this meeting in the Hotel Victoria, all his troubles seemed represented by the inches he had to bring up the round, vented aluminum instrument. The trouble was all there in his voice and words too. ". . . we're talking about program levels and procedures . . . Jerry, I would hope that the advisory council be one of the instruments of policy level, on a decision-making basis . . . new policies have to take shape . . . the idea input . . . we shall have to develop . . ."

His head high, his arms folded, the word "shall" coming out of him, Lindsay was completely too tall with his speech, too. Here he was, talking to a group of liberal Democrats who are considering leaving their party line to vote for him, an essential Republican, and he was talking as if he were conducting vespers in the chapel at St. Paul’s School. Here was everything wrong, and everything that has gotten John Lindsay into trouble in this city. His words made you think of Herb Brownell, Thomas Dewey, Walter Thayer, Bethel Webster. The same style that got this city into so much trouble at midnight on December 31, 1965. Lindsay was in a hotel a block away from this room in the Victoria, in the Americana, and he was talking down to old Mike Quill, and when Mike Quill looked up at John Lindsay he saw the Church of England. Within an hour, we had one hell of a transit strike. I remembered this while Lindsay droned on. I thought about Pete Hamill’s idea for this election. The hell with everybody coming over to Lindsay. Let's make him declare himself a Democrat. Make him do the line-crossing. He needs us a lot more than he ever thought he would when he was in Miami last summer and he let Brownell talk him into going up to second the nomination of Spiro Agnew. You can understand Brownell, an opportunist, pushing Lindsay into it. But so many people still can't understand how Lindsay could do it. How he would walk onto the platform in Miami and spit at all of us in New York and begin to glorify the Spiro Agnews of the country. So maybe it makes adult sense. If Lindsay wants us bad, let him come over and put in with us. The walk might do him some good. He might wind up a few inches shorter.

It was with this kind of a feeling that I walked out of the meeting and grabbed Barbara Fife, one of the West Side Democrats, whose husband was Herman Badillo's main financial backer. We went over to Gallagher's for a drink. "Lindsay called the house the other night," Barbara was saying. "He wanted to speak to Marty. You know, he's afraid Herman will run as an independent. So during the conversation, Marty said, 'Well, if I were you, I'd talk to Sarah Kovner too.' And Lindsay said, 'Sarah Kovner? Spell the name, will you, please?'"

Barbara Fife made a face. I picked up the beer and stared at it. Sarah Kovner and her husband Victor have been into New York politics—heavy politics, so that maybe Bobby Kennedy and Gene McCarthy knew the Kovners' home number without having to look it up—for a few years now. If John Lindsay did not know who they were, then he must have been a lot taller during the last four years than even the rough side of the record shows.

Barbara Fife finished her drink and left. I hung around at the bar, watching the theatre people come in for a drink, and after a few beers I switched to Scotch and water. I figured Lindsay for a shipwreck.

Then, as it always does when you have a drink alone, a few things came back to me very clearly. A night last fall in a television studio when Lindsay very solemnly handed me a gift. It was a huge mounted color photo of Spiro Agnew. On it, Lindsay had written, "Proudly given by the man who seconded Spiro T. Agnew—John V. Lindsay." After he handed it to me, Lindsay began to laugh and everybody in the room with him, some of the good young people in City Hall, Dave Garth, Jeff Greenfield, Jay Kriegel, began applauding. We all had a drink and I took my Agnew picture home and hung it up as the biggest piece of camp in New York. A few days later, every Republican around Lindsay was calling gently to see if I would give up the picture. I mean, they suggested, it is a terrible thing to make a joke out of the Vice President of the United States. I kept my picture. Lindsay would sign it twice for you today.

Well, I thought of that at the bar. And then, automatically, I thought of another night when I was alone in Gallagher's. It was on a Saturday night last April and the place was empty because it was the week of Martin Luther King's assassination and all over the country there were fires and unrest and people were afraid to come out. Early Saturday evening, on a plane from Washington, Burke Marshall and I were looking out the windows at the empty roads below us. Marshall, who was the Justice Department civil-rights man for a time, shook his head. "Everybody is afraid to go out," he said. "They're all sitting home afraid. My God, what an awful precedent." That was the week when the Richard J. Daleys of the country said "shoot to maim and shoot to kill" and so many people, from their hiding places, applauded. That was also the week when two politicians I knew did the only thing they knew how to do. When he heard about King's assassination, Bobby Kennedy got up in front of a black crowd on a street in Indianapolis. In New York, when it was starting, when there were fires and looting in a 70-block area and it looked like the whole thing was going to come apart, John V. Lindsay came out of a car on 116th Street and Lenox Avenue and he began walking. He told the people he was sorry and he was sick for what had happened, and I can't measure the actual good he accomplished that night, and I don't know if his presence saved any lives or not, but I know this Lindsay was ready to go any way the situation took him that night and that is enough for me forever. Which in politics means until November.

When I finished drinking in Gallagher's, I considered calling Robert J. Allen or Fat Thomas and resuming the summer as it was supposed to be resumed. It was only 1 a.m. and we could make the Hamptons in less than two hours. Then I considered the tallness of John Lindsay. I thought about it all the way home to Forest Hills, in Queens. You see, it looks like I just blew my summer for a project. Perhaps part of the answer to the "too tall" business might be to use short words aligned in the rhythm of the neighborhoods in his speeches. Yes, that's exactly what I'll write for them. Plenty of good, short New York neighborhood words in the speeches for John Lindsay.


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