The Brief, Half-Serious, and Sort of Visionary Political Career of Jimmy Breslin

The candidate who told an audience of cops that he'd abolish the New York Police Department


Mailer/Breslin campaign

"Good day to you," Jimmy Breslin told the crowd of cops. "I'd like the record to state that I'm here without a lawyer."

It was 1969. By this time Breslin, who died yesterday, was already a well-known newspaper columnist, but he wasn't giving a talk about journalism. He was campaigning to be president of the New York City Council. Also on the bill was Breslin's running mate, Norman Mailer, who was aiming to be mayor. The place was the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Breslin was about to give what Mailer's campaign manager, Joe Flaherty, later described as "the best speech he would deliver during the campaign." (It went over better than Mailer's turn with the crowd, which featured lines like "there were years when I hated some of you guys so much it wasn't funny" and "I'm as yellow as any good cop.")

After some opening jokes, Breslin got down to the heart of his pitch—elect his ticket, and "there will be no more New York Police Department as we know it":

Our idea is to have this city become a state, have the various sections of this city become cities right inside the state, and let them run their own police. Let's get the wisdom of the neighborhoods, give them the power, and let them run with it. I say the plan is far better from a police viewpoint than the way we're going, because in my estimation policemen today are being used. The police get all the mistakes of all the people who are supposed to be more important and smarter than us.

The argument that followed mixed lines a Black Panther could love ("Those days are gone when white people can rule the black neighborhoods") with sentences calculated to appeal to people afraid of Panthers ("I think the time also should be gone that we should ask a white person to go in there"). Breslin called for the radical decentralization not just of the police but of the schools, and he wrapped up with a joke about knowing a guy who could come in to teach a class on bookmaking. After the official event was over, the candidates found themselves shooting the shit with some beat cops who had skipped the lecture. One of them told Breslin he had "doubts about you with your long, curly hair." Breslin shot back that he "wouldn't want to walk into a piss house with you alone either, baby."

Mailer/Breslin campaign

By this time Mailer and Breslin weren't a conventional ticket so much as a double act, with each candidate taking the spotlight in front of different audiences. Breslin, a more natural populist, was better with Catholics and cops, Mailer with Jews and intellectuals; when they spoke before an audience of feminists, they both bombed. It never was completely clear how serious a campaign they were running. Breslin told one audience that "anyone who runs for office in this city, with the shape this city is in, and takes it as a joke, is committing a mortal sin." But it didn't take Flaherty long to decide that Breslin saw his candidacy "as a brief and witty exercise to discredit the regular pols, then an exit before the real campaigning began."

The duo definitely believed that stuff about decentralization and community control. But they were also prone to pitching proposals that were satiric, utopian, or maybe both: banning cars from Manhattan, inviting gangs to fight jousting matches in Central Park, holding a stickball World Series on Wall Street. Mailer took to promoting an idea he called Sweet Sunday—one day a month when, in his words, "New York would stop for 24 hours. Everything would stop running. Electricity, cars, planes, trains, name it. If nothing else, it would give New York a chance to clear itself once a month. And people would hear themselves think for a change." Pressed on whether he'd permit hospitals to run their generators on Sweet Sunday, Mailer backed down slightly and said he'd allow it. And air conditioning? There he held firm, though he acknowledged that the people wouldn't like the results: "On the first hot day the populace would impeach me."

New York

Put another way, Mailer and Breslin liked to bullshit. But they also cultivated the aura of men who told impolitic truths. It wasn't for nothing that one of their campaign slogans was No bullshit, and it wasn't for nothing that another slogan was The other guys are the joke. You were supposed to take them seriously but not always literally, to borrow a slightly curdled phrase.

If anything, they ODed on authenticity. One of the most notorious moments of the '69 campaign came when Mailer drunkenly railed against his own supporters at a fundraiser in a Greenwich Village club, telling his followers that they were "nothing but a bunch of spoiled pigs" and yelling "shut up" and "fuck you" at anyone who interrupted him, even if they were yelping their agreement. The speech also included a tipsy rant about Jews, with Mailer, an unmistakable Semite, declaring that he was entitled to include it "because I'm one of them." In the aftermath, at 4 a.m., a shell-shocked Breslin called Jack Newfield. "Why didn't you tell me I was running with Ezra Pound?" he asked.

Mailer got about 41,000 votes in the Democratic primary—a little over 5 percent. Breslin got around 66,000 in the other contest, or just under 11 percent. Besides failing to win, they mostly failed in Mailer's dream of assembling "a hip coalition of the left and right." The initial meeting at Mailer's house to discuss the race had drawn in figures ranging from Noel Parmentel of National Review to Jerry Rubin of the Yippies, but once the campaign got underway almost all of the ticket's backers hailed from the left end of the spectrum. (They did pick up some libertarian support, with Murray Rothbard endorsing the duo and some of his circle following suit. But this was when Rothbard was in his New Left phase.) Needless to say, they also failed to decentralize New York City, though it wasn't many years later that Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues conducted some studies that suggested devolving police work to the neighborhoods wasn't a bad idea. That speech at John Jay College may have gotten a little wild, but it turns out to have had some sense to it.

But their biggest failure was a matter of moral principle. Looking back, Breslin declared himself "mortified to have taken part in a process that required bars to be closed."