New York’s First Public Advocate Reflects on a Liberal Epoch

Commenting on his electoral losses, Mark Green, center, writes in his memoir “that someone couldn’t rise in New York politics unless they got by me first.”

Mark Green, who was the city’s first public advocate, more or less admits that by 2009, the last time he sought elective office, New Yorkers were suffering from Green Fatigue.

“I’ve lost to enough major figures — Michael Bloomberg, Chuck Schumer, Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio — that I began to think that someone couldn’t rise in New York politics unless they got by me first,” Mr. Green, 71, writes in his reflective, frank (if sometimes defensive) autobiography, Bright, Infinite Future: A Generational Memoir on the Progressive Rise (St. Martin’s Press, $26.99).

The title refers to the professional arc Mr. Green once envisioned for himself, and to his vision and prescriptions for liberal politicians today. The book is breezy, anecdotal, score-settling (Mr. Green revels in what he considers the occasional hypocrisy of Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, his rivals and fellow Democrats) and introspective, although the author generally hews to the definition of gaffe as “when you tell not a lie but the truth.”

He made his share, among them, unwittingly invoking an ethnic aspersion by alluding to former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo as an “organ grinder” (infuriating Mr. Cuomo, a choleric Italian-American who once, when described as “lashing out” at a fellow elected official, countered: “You wouldn’t say that about a Swede”), and agreeing during the 2001 mayoral campaign to let Rudolph W. Giuliani extend his term after the Sept. 11 attacks, then saying he would have done “even better” as mayor himself.

He admits to being too clever by half, lacking the gene for self-doubt and coming off as arrogant. It’s anyone’s guess whether he is being ironic when he says that he played tennis with John McEnroe and “I let him win.”

While acknowledging a lack of listening skills, Mr. Green remains worth a hearing. After all, he played an outsize role nationally — as an original member of Nader’s Raiders, as an operative and advocate for a liberal agenda and, in appointed and elected positions, as an innovative public servant.

When the new headquarters of The New York Herald, the flamboyant publisher James Gordon Bennett Jr.’s monument to the Gilded Age, opened on Herald Square in 1895, a colleague warned Bennett that it was perhaps imprudent to lease the land for the building for only 30 years. To which Bennett replied: “Thirty years from now, the Herald will be in Harlem and I shall be in Hell.”

For once, he was not guilty of hyperbole. Within three decades, the Herald offices had been demolished, the newspaper had been acquired by its smaller rival, The Tribune, and Bennett was dead. His legacy endures in two bronze owls that flank the statue of Minerva and regularly blink their green eyes over Herald Square.

In Gordon Bennett and the First Yacht Race Across the Atlantic (Adlard Coles/Bloomsbury $27), Sam Jefferson tacks across post-Civil War history to report on the sailing competition among three spendthrift New Yorkers — Bennett, Pierre Lorillard and George Osgood — goaded by Leonard Jerome, a financier best known as a grandfather of Winston Churchill.

In 1866, when the race was held, Bennett was 25, the son of the crusty Scottish-born Herald publisher who tartly concluded that “New York Society consists of people who don’t invite me to their parties.” If there was anything socially redeeming about Bennett Sr., it was that his son was worse.

In the decade when Bennett raced to Europe in 13 days, the Atlantic Cable and the Transcontinental Railroad also shrank the world, Mr. Jefferson reminds readers, making this book timely as the America’s Cup competition returnsto New York next weekend for the first time since 1920.

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