14 FEBRUARY 1970, Page 5


The machine breaks down


New York—'I can't tell you when it will happen, but happen to us it will,' one of Mayor Lindsay's assistants said the other day. 'Perhaps one day the subway will just break down and the riders will tear out the rails and come to the surface and kill us all.

Or there will be no heat anywhere in the Bronx. Or a child will die in a Harlem hospital because it is poisoned by a dirty scalpel. It will be something of the sort almost to be expected by now, not a piece of bad luck but the simple playing out of the

law of probability which we have escaped so far; and the city will just blow up. It is im-

possible unless you watch it every day to understand that the public services have just collapsed, and that the Mayor can only govern by prayer.'

The last four months of our politics have been extraordinarily calm. Mr Nixon is clearly acceptable and may even be popular. And yet the decay goes on. Our search for distraction from it may explain why Vice President Agnew, clumsy though he is, seems pretty much admired as a tribune; by telling us that we struggle with a crisis in morals, he takes our mind off our real crisis in institu- tions. And yet those failures in service to the poor and the black which we all recognise have now become failures of service to the middle class, still unconfessed but oppressive enough to threaten the security of governors and in the end, inescapably, even presidents.

The country is sick with failure. It had, after all, been our pride that the two instruments which Americans alone were capable of operating with efficiency were the telephone company and the gambling casino. Now the telephone has plainly ceased to work. And the decay we have come to accept in our cities extends to the suburbs. The other day, Governor Rockefeller had to raise the fares on our notorious Long Island Railroad; and the union announced that it would not man the trains unless the men were protected from the rage of the com- muters. The Long Island met this emergency by ordering its executives to ride the trains. The commuters, instead of being aroused by the sight of the authors of their discontent, seem to have been calmed by the presence of men who, whatever their ineptitudes, were certified for competence by a salary scale of $75,000 a year. However, this passed soon enough; by this weekend, the union was complaining that one of its conductors had expired of a heart attack brought on by abuse from his passengers and swore that, if this mob were not restrained, the trainmen would refuse their duties. The condition of our institutions has, of course, made their servants paranoid and set them to blaming the victims for the disaster.

The troubles of the commuter railroads go to epitomise both the neglect of our public services even while we were celebrating them and the conspicuous failure of the assurance embodied in Governor Rockefeller that, for Americans, there is no problem which does not have a solution. The municipal subways and the Long Island -Railroad are both con- spicuously worse since the Governor

established the public authority which was designed to regenerate them. They are plainly dirtier, slower and more expensive than they ever were; and, such being the state of our technology, those cars which were obsolescent are more serviceable than the shining new ones of the governor's pro- mise. The state of American industrial technology seems more and more to ap- proximate to that of Soviet engineering when it drove Stalin to those bloody reprisals of his.

This hopeless business has clearly damaged Governor Rockefeller beyond repair. If the Democrats recover enough from the shock and inanition which has im- mobilised them since the explosion of Presi- dent Johnson's mystery even to mount a can- didate for the New York state governorship, they are likely to defeat him. He will lose to the Democrats ironically enough for the same reason the Democrats lost the coun- try : he has become a symbol of the failure of the promises of government.

Mr Nixon's day of reckoning seems farther off, but its arrival will probably be sooner than most politicians think. He con- tinues to soothe the public, being still able to blame our troubles on the mess the Democrats left him, and being careful not to make too many promises and to confine those he makes to promises rather like those the Democrats made; his state of the union message was a parade of homilies against the pollution of our environment. He is, indeed, a president liberal in the general and reac- tionary in the particular, rather as Mr Johnson was at the end; and, whatever these policies may cost him with the public, they do not offer the Democrats much room for complaint.

If his future is clouded, it is not by any special failures of his own but by the con- tinuation of what has become a national pat- tern of failure. He may indeed be presiding over an economy which, for the first time in our history, will manage a wild inflation and a slight depression at the same time; it is ob- vious that none of the implements which were assumed to constitute our insurance against economic recession for all time to come is working at the moment. The op- position to the Vietnam war is quiet at present, but the President's support depends terribly on his `Vietnamisation' programme, which already shows signs of that gap between the drawing board and the performance which seems to afflict all pro- mises of our technique, whether it be Governor Rockefeller's railroad cars or our new transport plane.

The national sense of failure and self- disgust, while quieter than it was three months ago, still seems sullen and fore- boding. It is a mood difficult to represent in opposition; our politicians do not by habit venture easily into language which can be cried down as anti-American. So we suffer through one of those periods when very little politicians can say has much reference to how people feel. The message of patriotism has too small an audience, the message of anti-patriotism not enough preachers of sub- stance. What follows such periods is seldom pleasant.