NEW YORK — He prepped at St. Paul's, graduated from Yale and Yale Law, went to Congress from the Silk Stocking district and to City Hall on a slogan: "He's fresh and everyone else is tired." That was John Lindsay 30 years ago--cool, lean, handsome, impeccable--patrician as politician.
But last year the former mayor faced the same problem as 1.5 million other, more humble New Yorkers: He had no health insurance. And in a city notorious for generous municipal pensions, Lindsay had none at all.
Now, two city appointments have given the 74-year-old Lindsay, who has Parkinson's disease, health coverage and a chance to build credit toward a pension.
Although few New Yorkers seemed to begrudge him a break, one said Lindsay's case illustrated the plight of others less fortunate.
"It just shows what a patchwork health-insurance system we have," said Jerry Billings of the State Communities Aid Assn., an advocacy group for the poor. "Because we don't have universal coverage, anything can happen to all sorts of people. It isn't just a problem for low-income people."
How could Lindsay, of all people, wind up in such straits?
When he left City Hall in 1973 after eight years, Lindsay had not worked long enough to qualify for a municipal pension. That seemed immaterial when he joined an elite law firm. When that firm disbanded in 1991, he joined another top firm. But that firm also succumbed, leaving Lindsay with neither pension nor health insurance.
Meanwhile, his health had deteriorated. He underwent heart surgery in 1988 and suffered two strokes. He was hospitalized in 1990 after collapsing at a luncheon and again four years later after collapsing on a steamy platform at Grand Central Terminal.
Despite his image, Lindsay's family fortune was neither old nor large; his father went to law school nights. As mayor, Lindsay never made more than $50,000, $5,000 of which he gave back "because he said the city needed it more than he did," his wife, Mary, told Newsday this week.
Last October, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani named Lindsay a special counsel to the city's Commission for the United Nations, its liaison with the world body as well as missions and consulates. His yearly salary is $25,096.
City Hall spokesman Jack Deacy said Lindsay works 21 hours a week--one more than needed to qualify for insurance coverage--and turns in time cards.
In December, the mayor also appointed Lindsay to the unsalaried presidency of the Sister City program, which is administered from within the city's U.N. commission.
The appointments by Giuliani, the first Republican mayor since Lindsay, were supported by City Council President Peter Vallone, a Democrat. Lindsay's cause also has been championed by former Mayors David Dinkins and Edward Koch.
Lindsay's speech is slurred. He cannot read and he cannot walk without help. Although everyone who knows him comments on his gallantry and poise, he scarcely sounds able to work.
Attempts to contact Lindsay were unsuccessful. Warren Wechsler, his friend and former press secretary, said Lindsay would be out of the city for several weeks and probably would have no comment.
Calls to the U.N. commission were referred to Giuliani's office.
"His duties are largely advisory," Deacy said. "They depend on his expertise as a figure who has been the chief executive of New York City." Lindsay regularly attends board meetings and keeps an office but also works outside the office, Deacy said.
Billings, the policy advocate, noted that as mayor Lindsay did much to help the poor and said his arrangement seemed minor compared with those routinely enjoyed by former officials: "It's standard practice if you're politically connected."
But, he added, "You could say, 'Well, Mayor Lindsay, other people without insurance have to rely on hospital charity care, or pay a lot out of pocket. What about them?' "