Sunday, July 11, 2010
BOOK EXPLORES CAREY’S ROLE IN SAVING BIG APPLE
By WILLIAM HOGAN, Special to the Times Union
"The Man Who Saved New York" is a riveting and timely account of Hugh Carey's pivotal role in averting the financial collapse of New York City. The authors portray a resolute new governor, who made the difficult decisions that resolved the crisis and placed the city and state on the path to fiscal responsibility and economic growth.
The book also examines Carey's military service in World War II, record in Congress, and overall performance as governor. It puts the city's fiscal woes in historical context and discusses the political forces shaping that era, including the decline of New Deal liberalism and the rise of conservatism.
Seymour P. Lachman and Robert Polner argue persuasively that Carey was one of New York's greatest governors. They cite his self-confidence, competence, ability to reach across party lines, and negotiating skills honed in Congress as critical in bringing disparate groups together to save the city from a fiscal catastrophe.
Carey's upset victory in the 1974 Democratic primary enabled him to enter office with few political debts. Rather than filling his administration with "entrenched, usually older Democratic operatives," he selected younger Democrats with little or no New York state government experience. Carey gave his appointees considerable responsibility and autonomy. His willingness to share credit for successes and accept responsibility for mistakes was rare for a politician.
Lachman has had an impressive career in academia and public service. Polner is a former Newsday reporter. They collaborated on "Three Men in a Room," Lachman's critique of state government based on his nearly 10 years in the state Senate. They were interviewed tby phone.
Q: You give Carey high marks for the quality of the people he brought into state government.
Lachman: They were extraordinarily gifted. Many governors bring in their friends, cronies and people they owe something to politically. Carey had never met many of the people he hired, but they came highly recommended to him. Peter Goldmark, his budget director, came from Massachusetts and Carey heard how excellent he was. Goldmark later became president of the Rockefeller Foundation, executive director of the Port Authority, and CEO of the International Herald Tribune. Same thing was true with Dick Ravitch. Ravitch played tennis with Howard Samuels who Carey defeated in the primary. He didn't care because people like Goldmark and Ravitch had skills that far outweighed the political dimensions.
Q: How significant was Carey's role in addressing the 1975 fiscal crisis?
Polner: Carey was the leading figure in confronting the city's dangerous fiscal problems. He recognized that if New York City went bankrupt, this threatened not only the city and the state, but that ultimately the national and the international banking systems also would be risk. As the crisis deepened and the bankers stopped lending the city money, Carey felt he had no choice but to become the city's advocate for credit, advance state aid, and come up with other vehicles that deeply involved the state in the problems of its largest city. He grasped the implications of the crisis and did something about it, not only with the city administration and the state Legislature, but also in Washington, where he had a lot of familiarity having been a congressman.
Q: What is your assessment of Carey's character and leadership?
Lachman: Before becoming governor, Carey did not have executive experience. Each crisis brought out the best and strongest leadership in him. Carey was brilliant in how he could dissect a problem and tell his subordinates what he wanted them to do. In many ways, he was comparable to Al Smith, one of America's great governors. Carey was a very skilled politician in the best sense of the word. It is unusual for a politician to do what is best for the city and state even though this might harm his advancement in political life.
Polner: A critical part of Carey's leadership was the ability to achieve a consensus that New York City could not declare bankruptcy. He was able to take people from upstate, downstate, Republicans, Democrats, bankers and labor who were far apart and get them to understand one another's positions and to cooperate. His competence made that happen. Carey made people feel he was in control and things would work out somehow.
Q: My most vivid memory of the crisis was the Daily News headline "Ford to City: Drop Dead." Why did the president reverse course and support federal loans to the city?
Polner: Carey told an aide, "This will so humiliate Gerald Ford politically that it has to help us win now." However, Carey had a sophisticated understanding of Ford, who he had worked with in Congress. He thought Ford was giving him time to work the corridors of Congress and create a plan that both parties could support. Carey criticized Ford publicly, but it was with something of a partisan wink. Ford, I suspect, knew this; he never closed the door to Carey, who had more than an element of genuine respect and affection for the president. At one point in the heat of the showdown, Carey stated, "I know what kind of man Gerald Ford is and he will not let a great city like New York collapse for the sake of political gain." In the end, Carey and the state and city went a long way to satisfy Ford's terms for assistance and the president came through.
Q: What lessons from Carey's handling of the fiscal crisis are relevant today?
Polner: Carey was not a charismatic reformer like Giuliani or Spitzer, someone who was going to save the city or the state from their worst instincts and change them in his own image. Carey, who had a real streak of public purpose, wanted to make things better, but not in a grandiose sense. He improved the state in significant and lasting ways without turning it on its head. I think there's a lesson for future governors. Reformers don't often last; they burn out. They fail even though they're appealing when people want radical change.
About the book:
"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, July 2010
240 pages; $24.95 pages