Can it be that the apparent desire of this city to destroy itself can be found in the newspapers themselves? God, they do not even honor their own. They seem to assume that used-up politicians, implicated politicians, and politicians with tongues waxed in old dead liberal wax are going to know more about running this city than two writers who have spent their last twenty years separately brooding, working, and writing about the problems of man and society, and the streets and people of this city.
—Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin
Open letter to the New York Times
June 15, 1969
Forty years ago, my father wagered that he and Jimmy Breslin, two non-professional politicians, were better suited to save New York City than any career pol on the scene. So with Mailer for mayor and Breslin for city council president, they squared off in the 1969 Democratic primary against four standard-issue liberals. (Pop quipped of one, “I can’t get a grasp on a mind this small.” His campaign manager, Joe Flaherty, called another “eternally starched” and dismissed a third as a “municipal Lazarus.”) Echoing the student slogan raised during the Columbia University crisis of the previous year, “No more bulls–t,” they ran to rescue a “spiritless” city turned into a “legislative pail of dismembered organs.”
Something vital had been lost along the way—a sense of place, of verve and nerve and wit. They were out to get it back, niceties of the political game be damned.
Their vision was as bold as their odds were long—20-to-1 by my father’s estimate. But if New Yorkers took the bet, the shock to the system would provide enough momentum to make New York City the 51st state. Freed from its “marriage of misery, incompatibility, and abominable old quarrels” with the remainder of New York state, the city would reap a windfall of money and liberty sufficient to save it.
Pop figured, “The startled legislators of Albany and Washington would be face to face with a mighty fact: the bitterest and most apathetic and disillusioned electorate in the United States had spoken in a thunderous affirmation—they wanted Statehood for themselves.” He foresaw the city, its independence secured, splintering into townships and neighborhoods, with their own school systems, police departments, housing programs, and governing philosophies. In some areas, church attendance might be obligatory, in others free love mandatory. “People in New York would begin to discover neighborhoods of the left, the right, and the spectrum of the center which reflected some of their own passions and desires and programs for local government,” he wrote. One way or another, the city would come apart.
Gloria Steinem, Jack Newfield, and Noel Parmentel pitched the idea to him, guaranteeing its cross-partisan pedigree from the start. Murray Rothbard called it “the most refreshing libertarian political campaign in decades.” He believed that “smashing the urban government apparatus and fragmenting it into a myriad of constituent fragments” offered the only answer to the ills plaguing American cities and bestowed The Libertarian Forum’s first political endorsement.
Partisans proved less enthusiastic, but then my father was no stranger to people thinking some of his ideas were crazy. He had long argued that plastic was poisonous and that television destroys the attention span. He considered abortion murder, but felt it should be legal until we evolve to the point of outlawing all war. What was more offensive, he wondered: the premature death of a 20-year-old soldier whom God had been cultivating for one purpose or another, or a life that He or She (he always used both when referring to God) had been nurturing for a mere three weeks?
His ideas enflamed, enriched, and deepened the public discourse for the second half of the 20th century and on into the Bush years. Because his point of view didn’t attach to any political extreme, he wielded the double-edged sword of enlightening his audiences while forcing them to contemplate matters uncomfortable to their rigid ideologies. He took great pride in pronouncing himself a Left-Conservative—Left because he believed that desperate times required radical solutions, conservative because he distrusted centralized government. The label baffled even the more eclectic personalities he encountered on the various circuits. But in his view, Left and Right do not necessarily need to exist in solitary states. Rather, they could dwell together in a radically alternative system to the one we know today—one in which governance belongs to local inhabitants bound by as little federal interference as possible. His claim to be running to the left and right of every man in the race was no gimmick.
Though largely mocked by the press—“the Mailer-Breslin ticket, running in fun…”—this wasn’t street theater. “They never took us seriously,” my father complained to New York magazine, “when in fact, we had more ideas than anyone else around.” Theodore White, author of the Making of the President books, agreed, calling it “one of the most serious campaigns run in the United States in the last five years. … his campaign was considered and thoughtful, the beginning of an attempt to apply ideas to a political situation.” And make no mistake: Mailer and Breslin were in it to win. True, their slogan was unprintable, their speeches incorrect, their organization unorthodox. Calling your supporters “spoiled pigs” may not be a great strategy. But for all the flamboyance of their campaign, the duo was deadly serious. Breslin wrote:
In Manhattan, the lights seem brighter and the theatre crowds swirl through the streets and the girls swing in and out of office buildings in packs and it is all splendor and nobody sees the body punches that are going to make the city sag to its knees one day very soon. The last thing that New York can afford at this time is a politician thinking in normal politicians’ terms. The city is beyond that. The City of New York either gets an imagination, or the city dies.
Their platform ran on that kind of creativity but didn’t neglect common sense. At the time, New York City taxpayers were giving the state and federal governments $14 billion, of which only $3 billion was returned to the city. Under the City-State, an additional $2 billion in revenue would come in to deal with local problems.
My father called for banning private cars in Manhattan, which would have reduced pollution by an estimated three-fifths. The number of cabs would increase, and passengers heading in the same direction could share cabs at a prorated fare. All city bus and subway transportation would be free, a monorail was to be built around the island, and publicly owned bicycles would be made available to all without cost.
On the last Sunday of every month—Sweet Sunday—for 24 hours nothing would move or operate in the city except for emergency vehicles. No planes, trains, automobiles, or anything requiring electric power was to run, giving the city and her inhabitants a break from the humming of machinery and choking of exhaust pipes. If you lived on the 75th floor of a building, you had best plan in advance. The idea, Breslin wrote, was for “everything [to be] brought to a halt so human beings can rest and talk to each other and the air can purify itself.” Would it have cleansed the city’s soul or restored some sense of small-town identity? At the very least it would have gotten people talking to their neighbors, an essential element of the devolutionary project.
Under the Mailer-Breslin plan, immediate rent control would have been extended to all dwellings with two or more families. But neighborhoods would manage their own programs, with the City-State funding rehabilitation, not demolition. With the emphasis shifted from handouts to community restoration and neighborhood daycare programs, a person in need of welfare would be beautifying his community while getting job-training in how to restore a house, bettering his credit, and building the foundation for an upwardly mobile lifestyle.
In an age of exploding crime, their default was again local: power to policemen who have the respect of the communities in which they live. The City-State would legalize heroin along the lines of the British methadone system to cut down on drug-related crime and would create incentive programs to join local police forces, such as Breslin’s idea of draft exemptions in exchange for short-term police service or credits to law-school students who served during peak crime hours.
Some of these ideas would have probably failed. Others would have half-worked, leaving people no more or less happy than under the old Albany system. Here and there a blighted neighborhood might have been transformed, reinforcing the belief that enabling local communities to self-govern was not only practically efficient but spiritually nourishing. It is difficult to imagine that New York would have been worse off.
We won’t know. Mailer took just 5 percent of the primary—41,000 votes. Breslin got 66,000, later lamenting, “I am mortified to have taken part in a process that required bars to be closed.” The young foot soldiers of the New Left bought in, but the “hip coalition of the left and right” they had envisioned never materialized.
My father did not live to see the election of Barack Obama, but I wonder what the original “Power to the Neighborhoods” candidate would have made of the community organizer become chief executive. Would he have seen him as just another conventional liberal politician consolidating power in Washington, or might he have seen him as representative of the fruit sprung from the seeds he and Breslin planted in ‘69? Another question comes to mind: in today’s culture of viral messaging and alternative media, would Mailer-Breslin have been able to build the thunderous affirmation my father spoke of and ride that wave to statehood? If the Internet had existed in ’69, is it possible, perhaps even likely, that they could have won?
My father and Jimmy used their celebrity as writers to get free press, the only hope for an underfinanced campaign working not only outside of, but in direct opposition to, the political machine. Obama wrote two bestselling books, propelling his rapid rise to the limelight. It’s unlikely he would be president today without his talent as a writer.
Like my father, he understood the necessity of energizing ordinary people against the regnant establishment. A category-confuser by virtue of his physical appearance, Obama managed to convince a majority that Bush had done such a horrific job of running the country that old white men were no longer qualified to govern. Mailer-Breslin also sought to build a coalition of the dispossessed, yet had no means of showing skeptics the support they were getting on the street and channel that groundswell into mass appeal.
But four decades later and far beyond New York City, the Jeffersonian spirit that animated these two anti-politicians is more relevant than ever. The federal grip is no less strong. The communal bonds are even more frayed. The diagnosis my father delivered in his “Instrument of the City” might have been written yesterday:
… the old confidence that the problems of our life were roughly equal to our abilities has been lost. Our authority has been handed over to the federal power. We expect our economic solutions, our habitats, yes, even our entertainments, to derive from that remote abstract power, remote as the other end of a television tube. We are like wards in an orphan asylum. The shaping of the style of our lives is removed from us—we pay for huge military adventures and social experiments so separated from our direct control that we do not even know where to begin to look to criticize the lack of our power to criticize. We cannot—the words are now a cliché, the life has gone out of them—we cannot forge our destiny. …We wait for abstract impersonal powers to save us…
In an age when evolving problems need new approaches perhaps more than ever, one hopes that the artists and the businessmen, the plumbers and the architects, the house-painters and the restaurant owners, rather than wait for their problems to be solved from above, might look to the Mailer-Breslin campaign for inspiration. They can make their city a better, more interesting place, one block at a time.
John Buffalo Mailer recently produced a documentary adaptation of Naomi Wolf’s best selling book, The End Of America. He is editor at large for Stop Smiling magazine.
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