Lives of Newfield and Troy Intersected at Times

Posted January 25, 2005 at 5:44pm

Two giants of New York politics died last month: Matthew Troy and Jack Newfield.

They couldn’t have been more different, but both were classic New Yorkers — and throwbacks, in their own way.

Newfield was a crusading liberal journalist whose passing was noted in newspapers as far away as Indianapolis, Denver and San Diego. [IMGCAP(1)]

Troy was a disgraced Queens Democratic leader and city councilman who clawed his way back to respectability.

Throughout his career, Newfield inveighed against political bosses like Troy.

“Matthew Troy may cultivate an earthy image of macho populism, but it is only an assumed persona,” Newfield and civic activist Paul Du Brul wrote in their 1977 book, “The Abuse of Power: The Permanent Government and the Fall of New York.” “The clubhouse system is today what it was more than 70 years ago when Lincoln Steffens described it as a ‘government of the people, by the rascals, for the rich.’ The only difference is that it is now much more sophisticated.”

Yet later in life, Troy became an occasional source to Newfield, illuminating him on the mores of the clubhouse and the mindset of the city’s political bosses. (Newfield may have been willing to consort with a Queens boss because he was always angriest about political corruption on his home turf, Brooklyn.)

Troy and Newfield were independently friends of Jimmy Breslin, the legendary columnist now writing for Newsday who delighted in chronicling the foibles of Queens political insiders like Troy. Both also supported former Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) in his 1972 ill-fated presidential bid — and therein lies a story.

It was hardly surprising that Newfield would be for the peace candidate (though he wasn’t personally close to McGovern, as he was with other iconic liberal politicians). Troy’s endorsement of McGovern, however, was quite a surprise indeed.

Troy was then a city councilman and the powerful leader of the Queens Democratic machine. He was also a staunch supporter of the war in Vietnam.

In the fall of 1969, when tens of thousands of anti-war protesters converged on Washington, D.C., New York Mayor

John Lindsay, a fashionably liberal Republican, ordered the flags at City Hall lowered to half-staff, in solidarity with the marchers and to honor the war dead. The hawkish Troy was so incensed that he climbed to the roof of City Hall and personally raised the flag to full staff.

So it was a shock, to say the least, when less than three years later Troy endorsed McGovern, the leading anti-war candidate for president in the Democratic primary, squiring the South Dakotan to glittery fundraisers and gritty political clubhouses.

Catherine Kalenderian, Troy’s daughter, recalled in an interview that the differences between Troy and McGovern had been exaggerated. Although they disagreed on Vietnam and had radically different personal styles, her brassy New York father felt an ideological kinship with the quiet, plainspoken South Dakota progressive.

“His politics are something my father also had a vision for,” Kalenderian said, adding that Troy not only helped secure McGovern’s New York primary victory, but that he also “campaigned for him — all over the country, even.”

“I felt that [McGovern] was the Franklin Delano Roosevelt of 1972,” Troy explained at the time.

McGovern was grateful, and Troy enjoyed VIP status at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami.

Things went downhill for him from there.

In 1975, Lindsay’s successor, Mayor Abe Beame (D), and other citywide Democratic bosses forced Troy from his post as party leader. A year later, he pleaded guilty to federal tax-evasion charges after failing to report $37,000 that he was accused of stealing from his law clients (he later confessed to taking bribes from candidates seeking his favor). In the process, he was disbarred, and in 1977 he was defeated in his bid for re-election to the council.

But years later, in an interview with The New York Times about his days as a political boss, Troy said his downfall “probably saved my life. It kept me from getting a heart attack.”

It is a testament to the stability of the Queens Democratic machine — the most powerful party organization left in New York — that the borough has had only two Democratic leaders since Troy was ousted. The current chairman, former Rep. Tom Manton, has held the post for almost 20 years. (He inherited it when his predecessor, Donald Manes, was embroiled in a municipal scandal that Newfield helped expose.)

Troy didn’t disappear from politics altogether. He spent a decade as executive director for a trade association of gasoline retailers. And he eventually got his law license back.

Troy was 75 when he died of Parkinson’s disease.

While McGovern may have been the electoral link between Troy and Newfield, Newfield in some ways cast a far longer political shadow than the old political boss. His role models were old-time muckrakers like Steffens and Murray Kempton and I.F. Stone, but he was really an original.

A passionate defender of the underdog — credited with alerting city officials to the dangers of lead paint, exposing greedy landlords, corrupt judges and other scoundrels on the public payroll — Newfield was also a friend to the high and mighty. He formed alliances with the late Robert F. Kennedy and with Mario Cuomo — the last two politicians, he believed with regret, who could appeal to both black voters and working-class whites.

“He was rarely out of the car with Bobby Kennedy,” Breslin wrote in a tribute to Newfield after he died. “He talked and Kennedy listened, and I don’t know whether Kennedy agreed with everything, but he sure listened. As he was the best candidate for president of the United States we have had, a young Senator screaming for peace when a war in Vietnam was killing over 58,000 of our young poor, Newfield was where he belonged, advocating for the endangered.”

Because he spent the first 25 years of his career at the Village Voice, the granddaddy of alternative weekly newspapers, Newfield essentially pioneered political coverage for these independent news outlets. He never just spouted rhetoric, but backed his screeds up with smart, indefatigable reporting.

Newfield was occasionally criticized — by conservatives, by friends on the far left and by fellow journalists — for serving as an informal adviser to these and other pols. For his political kibitzing he was nicknamed “the sixth county leader” — a reference to the five boroughs (counties) of New York City. But Cuomo rushed to his defense.

“I don’t think that to be a journalist he has to stop being an active citizen,” the three-term New York governor once said of his friend.

Newfield’s interests extended beyond politics. He wrote books and produced documentaries on corruption in the world of professional boxing. And in one legendary incident, he and another celebrated New York writer, Pete Hamill, sat in a bar together and separately wrote down the names of the three most contemptible villains of the 20th century. Their lists were identical: Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin — and Walter O’Malley, the man who moved the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles.

On the same day that Newfield died of a fast-spreading kidney cancer at age 66, several American servicemen were killed when their mess tent was bombed in Baghdad.

“The morning brought a story of Americans killed while eating lunch in Iraq,” Breslin wrote. “So many more are open for death, and we have no politician or an influential nomad like Jack Newfield to try and save them.”