Hugh Carey, the Man Who Saved New York

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    NEWSLETTERS

    AP

    Hugh Carey was a brilliant man, but few recognized it at first. 

    He saved the city from bankruptcy. To do it, he brought a group of people together who seemed like natural enemies. He saved the city and the state, and with his death, perhaps more will appreciate his greatness.

    He took office facing an incredibly difficult financial situation. New York City's creditors were closing in. The city was on the brink of bankruptcy. I remember hearing an early speech to the Legislature in which Carey said the days of wine and roses were over.

    Then, suddenly, the city was in major financial trouble. It was on the verge of bankruptcy, and if the city went under, the state would fail too.
         
    Carey swiftly put together a team of leaders that had nothing in common, but in some cases, their mutual hostility. There were bankers and businessmen, politicians and labor leaders. He placed them in a room in his New York City office and pressed them to decide on a course of action. 

    I found him at first to be a dour man, with occasional glints of humor. Yet nobody could tell a story any better. And he had great Irish charm.
     
    In covering the story, I camped out in front of the governor's office. We didn't know precisely what was going on, but occasionally, we got a glimpse when we saw the haggard faces going out for a break and confronted them..

    If Carey was the manager of this strange coalition, investment banker Felix Rohatyn was the shortstop. Labor leader Victor Gotbaum, of the major municipal workers union, was the heaviest hitter.

    Gotbaum told me, after Carey's death, that the governor cajoled the group, adding: "He didn't pound the table. He was respectful of all of us. But he was tenacious."

    Gotbaum, who is a skeptic by nature, was impressed by Carey. "I didn't find him tough, but he was insistent. As he maneuvered to bring us together, you couldn't help but respect his tenacity."
     
    Eventually the group came up with a plan. Carey created the Municipal Assistance Corporation, known as MAC, to borrow money for the city. He also set up the Financial Control Board with the power to reject city budgets and labor contracts. Thus, he went over the head of the city's hapless mayor, Abe Beame, diminishing his authority.

    This has rarely happened -- but the city legally is a creature of the state and that's why the governor had the power to do it.

    Jim Vlasto, Carey's press secretary during the most critical days, recalled to me the tense, exhausting negotiations.

    "We were working 18-hour days. With bankers and labor leaders shut up in the same room, it wasn't exactly a marriage made in heaven. But they all learned to respect each other and Carey's personality --and he was a very complicated man -- won them over. He could make you laugh and cry. He was a great storyteller. He made enemies but he didn't let that stop him."

    Vlasto said his boss had a gift for hiring good people to staff his administration -- and many politicians  agree.

    There's an age-old debate about whether a crisis creates a leader or a leader brings his own policies to bear and thereby meets a challenge. Hugh Carey was a man for the times. 

    It should not be forgotten that he came out of a crucible of war and tragedy. In World War II, he enlisted as a private, rising through the ranks to lieutenant colonel. He fought in battles in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany and won many decorations.

    He once said: " All my life, people have been underestimating me."  

    He will be judged as an incredibly gifted man. He was what we needed -- a leader at a desperate moment in New York's history.