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Buffalo News Book Review essay

Book Reviews section
September 19, 2010
By ROBERT J. McCARTHY, News Book Reviewer
"The Man Who Saved New York: Hugh Carey and the Great Fiscal Crisis of 1975,"
by Seymour P. Lachman and Robert Polner. State University of New York Press, 221 pages, $24.95

    Imagine a situation in which New York State faces huge deficits brought on by overspending. Layoffs and hard times are the order of the day, and the private sector proclaims it can no longer do business in such a place.
    Sound familiar?
    Now imagine a strong-willed pol who becomes governor, brings warring factions of politics, finance and labor together, and imposes some sense of fiscal order to a New York house long out of whack.
    That may not seem so familiar. But it’s exactly the scenario described in a new book: “The Man Who Saved New York: Hugh Carey and the Great Fiscal Crisis of 1975,” by Seymour P. Lachman and Robert Polner.
    The authors transport us back to the mid-1970s, when New York City reveled in the great spending sprees of John V. Lindsay and other previous mayors. The state, meanwhile, was ending the Nelson Rockefeller era and its culture of spending and entitlements that make the words “New York” and “fiscal crisis” seem perpetually linked.
    The premise of the book is that a jowly Irishman from Brooklyn arrived on the scene in 1975 only to find New York City facing bankruptcy. He then summoned the negotiating skills honed during a long career in Congress to foil what could have proven a cataclysmic event — not only for New York but the world.
    Lachman, a former state senator, and Polner, a former Newsday reporter, examine Carey’s Catholic education at St. Augustine’s Academy, St. Augustine’s High School and St. John’s University. They discuss his military service during World War II, which began with a stint in the National Guard and wound up as an Army major and Bronze Star winner who helped liberate the Nazi concentration camp at Nordhausen.
    “They didn’t herd up women and children and put them in the gas chamber, as in other parts of the ghastly Nazi empire,” the governor recalled. “They took skilled people and worked them to death. In my own way I’ve never seen anything in the world to echo this horror at Nordhausen.”
    An early and ardent supporter of John F. Kennedy, the neophyte pol rode JFK’s coat tails to a seat in the House of Representatives in 1960 and a notable congressional career until his successful run for governor in 1974. That campaign remains a milestone in New York political history as he overpowered party nominee Howard Samuels of Canandaigua and then beat incumbent Republican Gov. Malcolm Wilson.
    Carey overcame the party bosses, dispatched his huge brood of children on campaign trips around the state, and understood the importance of timing. After 16 years of Rocky and Wilson — not to mention the Watergate fiasco that spelled disaster for Republicans everywhere — the state was ready for change. And Carey knew it.
    But the essence of Lachman and Polner’s work — Carey’s role in confronting an overwhelming financial crisis — is what some say secures his place in history.
    Carey may be best remembered by his first State of the State address in 1975, when he told the Legislature that “we as a people have been living far beyond our means. There has scarcely been an activity, a category of public spending, in which we did not lead the nation.”
    “Now the times of plenty, the days of wine and roses, are over,” Carey declared in what remains the trademark line of his eight years in office.
    What followed was an emergency financial control board for New York City, formed to take the necessary steps that allowed the nation’s biggest metropolis to once again gain access to the credit markets from its overzealous spending had made it persona non grata.
    It was not an easy task.
    “Carey was among the first in the party nationally to emphasize that there were limits to what state governments could do to improve peoples’ lives,” the authors write. “Though they were soon echoed by Democrats, Republicans and independents running for political office all over the country, at the time Carey pronounced them his words sounded unfamiliar and dissonant, especially to liberals in his party, who identified them with conservatives, bankers and a chamber of commerce mentality.”
    There will always be arguments over the governor’s choices. Some still say letting the City of New York default was the best course — that a start from scratch was necessary. Those critics also say Carey pandered to municipal unions to gain their cooperation in meeting the crisis, all leading to the problems that make New York so unique today.
    But Carey insisted then and now that letting New York City default would have eventually led to default for all of New York State. And as the financial capital of the world, he insisted those shock waves could have engulfed the planet.
    The authors concentrate on the rest of his tenure too, recalling that his closure and cleanup of the infamous mental facility at Willowbrook on Staten Island ranks in Carey’s own estimation as his greatest accomplishment.
    “While Carey realized,” the authors wrote, “that people one day probably would remember him for having organized the rescue of New York City during the 1975 fiscal crisis, the one deed of which he was proudest was what he did when faced with the national shame that was Willowbrook.”
    The book gets mired in the intricacies of municipal finance, and that can be distracting. It could also be argued it concentrates too much on New York City and ignores upstate, recalling that old New Yorker magazine cover that reflects the city’s view of the world as pretty much concentrated on the island of Manhattan.
    The authors nicely capture the Irish experience in New York City, in politics and in the Catholicism that has always been a part of Carey’s long life. While his family life provides some of the book’s most poignant moments (such as the death of two of his sons in a 1969 auto crash on Shelter Island), the reader craves for more stories about one of the most colorful families to ever inhabit the Governor’s Mansion.
    His 1981 marriage and almost immediate annulment to Chicago heiress Evangeline Gouletas, for example, are dismissed in a sentence. And though the authors refer to Carey’s “personal opposition” to abortion, they forget he told The Buffalo News in 1990 that his support of abortion rights as governor stood as a major point of shame—what he called a triumph of political expediency over his conscience.
    But that’s a minor point in an otherwise superb effort. Lachman and Polner have painted a vivid picture of a colorful figure in New York history, whose actions in the face of fiscal crisis may never be more relevant.

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