Thursday, June 12, 2008

Looking Back

I went the other day to a memorial service for Barry Gottehrer, a name not known to many. As a young man and after a spectacular start as a journalist at the old Herald Tribune, still admired as perhaps the greatest newspaper New York has seen, Barry joined the Lindsay administration in the mid-1960s and was a key staffer for five or six years, giving of his heart and soul and abundant skills as he reached out to young Blacks and others headed toward a life of social decay and crime. I served at City Hall during Mayor Lindsay’s second term and that is why I was at the memorial, along with an impressive group of now mostly near-elderly people who were in city government during that period.

I do not recall Barry and I speaking or communicating in the more than thirty-five years since our paths last crossed. Nor have I had more than flimsy contact with ex-Lindsayites, partly because their reunions invariably took place on Friday evenings when I couldn’t come. In any case, my life and work went in a different direction.

About two months before Barry died of pancreatic cancer, Jay Kriegel and Sid Davidoff – the Lindsay people I was closest to – told me of his illness and suggested a visit, a request that struck me as odd in view of the lack of contact for a third of a century. I soon learned that Barry had written a book a long time ago about his City Hall experience (“The Mayor’s Man,” 1975) and that near its conclusion he included two letters that had more meaning for him than the farewell dinner in his honor attended by 1,000. One was from a police officer, the other from me.

The letter foretold the expectation that the relationship with colleagues would end when Lindsay’s term ended. “Friendship at City Hall is an illusive matter,” I wrote, and “people can work closely for years and laugh and drink together and somehow – even if they do not know it – they are not friends. After the experience is over, they will not see each other too often. This is true even when colleagues have a strong liking for one another.”

Rereading the letter now and going to the memorial service have opened a window in my mind for memory and reflection.

History hasn’t treated John V. Lindsay kindly and that’s to be regretted. Hopefully, there will be a reassessment. He was honest and honorable, a good and decent man. The people I worked with were dedicated and talented and not tainted by the sleaze that collects around political power. In the years since their governmental service they have in the aggregate made notable contributions to American life. However, the whole was less than the parts and their reach was far short of the ambition. There were failures, some glaring, and they have induced neglect of the achievements.

Why do some administrations fail and others succeed? The ready and easy answer is the choices that are made and skill in governing. That’s part of the story, but there is more, such things as timing and fate, as when an administration enters when the economy is healthy or in a downturn or whether in a period of civil calm or unrest. Lindsay took office when the Black Revolution was in full force and other ethnics, specifically including Jews, were moving beyond the melting pot and becoming far more assertive. It is to Lindsay’s credit that for all of the tension and thanks to staffers like Barry Gottehrer, New York was spared the calamitous rioting that afflicted much of urban America.

The failures arose from the inability to understand the white side of the ethnic coin, to appreciate that ethnic consciousness and demands would attach to groups that weren’t labeled as minority. Even as the process of Jewish assimilation accelerated, there was the perhaps paradoxical expansion of Jewish emotionalism and militancy, impelled by a confluence of factors including a new awakening to the horrors of the Holocaust, the struggle for Soviet Jewry, enhanced pride in Israel, the legitimating of ethnicity resulting from the Great Society and the Black Revolution and the feeling among inner city Jews that they were being forced out by policies that favored Blacks.

There were serious skirmishes before I joined Lindsay’s staff in 1970 and they left scars. I touched on these issues in the weekly “In the City” column that I wrote for the Jewish Press while at City Hall, a rather unique arrangement that was occasionally challenged by colleagues who felt that such writing was inappropriate. Lindsay sided with me, but although I had other responsibilities, in a dialectical fashion this writing fortified the perception both in and out of government that I was the house Jew, a term not meant as a compliment.

For all of the ethnic and other stress, there were singular achievements, the funding of projects and initiatives that to this day have made an important difference for New York Jewry. Working with my extraordinary friend Jack D. Weiler, a great Jewish leader now mostly forgotten, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty was established, as were the Jewish Community Relations Council and neighborhood Jewish organizations. There was much more. Yet, the watershed event was the Forest Hills housing controversy. I clashed with the Mayor and colleagues, first to no avail and then the project was halved in scope, something that Mario Cuomo has wrongly taken credit for.

The people I worked with were mainly Jews from a different background and perspective. They were good people who did much good. As for Mayor Lindsay, he suffered terribly in his last years from serious illness and pain and there was also financial hardship. Perhaps others in his administration will write about their experiences, so that the record will be more complete.