Saturday, 12 December 2020


My obituary of the former New York mayor David Dinkins is up at the Guardian online, and should be in the paper paper soon.You can link to it here. It's been cut somewhat from what I wrote originally--there were a lot of things that needed further explanation, and once the explanation was cut, the points themselves tended to go too. 

One thing I tried to stress was Dinkins' experience of segregation and prejudice when he went out of New York; Howard University is in Washington DC, which was still a strictly segregated city, and when he was in the Marines, Montford Point was a "separate but equal" training facility near the more famous and far better equipped Camp Lejeune. When Dinkins was not allowed on a bus because all the "coloured" seats were full, it was a Jackie Robinson type moment. But of course he didn't take action as Robinson did, and was court-marshalled for; I was trying to establish whether the bus was running between the two Marine camps but couldn't.

The obvious thing to note is that Dinkins was New York's first black mayor, and, as I mention, New York was the last of the ten biggest US cities to actually elect a black mayor. It was a difficult time for that experiment to take place, given the racial tensions in the city at the peak of a 15 year crime wave, for which Dinkins was not responsible. But to put him in context I tried to describe how he came from that Democratic party machine which pretty much had controlled the city for decades--where Koch had been elected as a reformer, Dinkins was from the very system Koch originally was trying to reform--but because he was racially an outsider, he was perceived by many as someone who could transform the city, something he was ill-equipped to do in any but the symbolic sense. 

He was potentially New York's most charismatic mayor since John Lindsay, who was Kennedy-esque in more ways than one, but that isn't necessarily the charisma the Big Apple requires; both Koch and Giuliani in some ways had that, as I allude to in my opening. I tried to compare him to Obama, but Obama was also a natural performer, a gifted public speaker, and eloquent in his ability to reach people. Dinkins, for all his other qualities, had neither Obama's fluency nor Lindsay's decisiveness, which left him caricatured as ineffective.

Politically, New York is Democratic, but it was also, especially in the outer boroughs, very much a white electorate. Lindsay was a Republican who had been elected while running on the Liberal Party line.The Liberals were a New York institution who were sometimes power brokers in elections, rather than being a kind of left conscience for Tammany Hall. Lindsay had represented the affluent Manhattan "Silk Stocking" district in Congress, and when he was elected mayor in 1965 he beat Dinkins' mentor Abe Beame and the far-right political columnist William F Buckley who ran on the Conservative ticket in protest at Lindsay's liberalism, by plurality in a three-way dance.  But the very same gestures that won him minority support in Manhattan hurt him in some of New York's white communities. When he ran for re-election in 1969 the city had been rocked by strikes (and a huge blizzard, where Lindsay was accused of prioritizing the streets of Manhattan over other boroughs). He lost the Democratic primary to the very conservative Mario Proccachino (there were so many candidates Lindsay quipped "the more the Mario"). The Republicans ran the even-more very conservative John Marchi, a state senator from mostly-white Staten Island. Lindsay ran only on the Liberal line, but again won a three-way with an even bigger plurality than he had in 1965. It was a turbulent era for Lindsay, who engendered the term "fun city" (used ironically, first by writer Dick Schaap) and who was dubbed, by Proccachino, the first "limousine liberal". 

It was this atmosphere, which got worse in the Seventies as the city went bankrupt and the drugs got worse, I was trying to suggest, caught Dinkins in a swarm of disasters he didn't cause, but which required huge talents to overcome. In that context, Giuliani was the reincarnation Proccachino and Marchi, but the endorsement of the Liberal Party was a free ticket for 'liberals' to vote against a black candidate. The Liberals had suffered when they endorsed liberal Republican Jacob Javits for US Senator, allowing the right-wing goof ball Al D'Amato to defeat Democrat Elizabeth Holzman, but Giuliani was, for the party, a death knell, especially when he appeared to reward the Liberal boss Ray Harding with patronage.  But of course, there was no way to tell that story quickly, as you've just seen.

Equally, there wasn't space for the progress of Ed Koch from reformer to corruption: the suicide of Queens borough president Donald Manes in the midst of a huge patronage scandal was the atmosphere which Dinkins neatly managed to avoid being smeared with, a neat political trick. I also tried to compare Dinkins with Barack Obama in greater depth -- but apart from the idea of calm leaders failing to bridge party political gaps, that wasn't as viable, as Obama didn't rise up within the party machine. 

To me the Dinkins story is one of New York City, and his single controversial term speaks loudly about the chaotic nature of the Apple at the time. It was ironic that Dinkins, a huge tennis fan and player, managed to keep the US Open in the city, and the Utah tourist Brian Wilkins was killed on the subway on his way to the Open, trying to protect his mother from a gang of muggers.

Perhaps it is to Giuliani's credit that things began to calm down in the Nineties, or perhaps that was just as much about outside forces, like economic growth nationwide, as Dinkins' troubles were. But it is undeniable that, had he been capable of the big gesture, in a city where gestures can be important and big is always crucial, Dinkins might be remembered differently.

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