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OPINION: The public loves young reformers - for a while, at least

Vincent J. Cannato teaches history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and is the author of "The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York" and "American Passage: The History of Ellis Island."

Tom Suozzi's surprise defeat as Nassau County executive seems to have put an end - at least for the time being - to a once-promising political career. What happened? Suozzi ran into a deadly political buzz saw of anti-Democratic sentiment, an anti-tax revolt spurred by economic insecurity and feelings that he appeared more interested in higher office.

Suozzi was first elected county executive in 2001, running against the county's long-powerful Republican machine. Once elected, he would go on to push his Fix Albany campaign, arguing that the state government's ineptitude, corruption and fiscal irresponsibility were hurting the county. In short, he was a classic political reformer: young, articulate, attractive and idealistic. Then it all seemed to fall apart.

This trajectory from political idealism to disillusionment and defeat is not unusual, and there is a historical example with some parallels to Suozzi's story. In 1965, New York City elected as mayor a handsome and charismatic idealist named John Lindsay to clean up the city. A liberal Republican, he blamed the Democratic machine for the city's problems. His unofficial campaign motto was: "He's fresh and everyone else is tired." He would be the city's white knight.

A youthful 42 when elected, Lindsay promised to chip away at the control of the city's "power brokers," including Robert Moses, the unions and the so-called Irish Mafia who ran the police department. He would fight Albany for more funds for the city. He became a national spokesman for the plight of cities then in the throes of crisis and decline.

But it was not to be. Lindsay governed during one of the most chaotic periods in New York's history and never seemed to get a handle on the city's problems. There was a feeling about Lindsay - as there was among Suozzi's political opponents - that he was more a man of talk than action. Lindsay could never quite rein in those power brokers, nor get control of some of the city's most pressing problems. And his idealism could easily verge into a kind of scolding moralism that rubbed too many people the wrong way.

Like Suozzi, Lindsay fell for the lure of higher office. After becoming a Democrat, Lindsay ran for president in 1972. He had hoped that the same idealism that impelled his mayoral election in 1965 would prevail in the Democratic presidential primary. It didn't. As one journalist wrote at the time: "What the mayor truly lost out on the road was not just a couple of primaries, but rather an irreplaceable mystique, the quality that in 1965 led fathers . . . to hold up their small children for a glimpse at the man who was going to be president some day."

Lindsay won election to two terms as mayor and then did not run for a third term, so he never experienced a shocking upset as Suozzi did. But Lindsay's political career was effectively over in 1973. When the city nearly went bankrupt in 1975, he took a great deal of the blame and sank further into political oblivion. A run for the Senate in 1980 never took off.

Another young reformer from the metropolitan area who saw a similar flameout is former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler (for whom I once worked as an aide). He was 33 when elected mayor in 1992 as a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic city. Schundler set out as an energetic reformer. Some Republicans even touted him as a future presidential candidate.

Like Lindsay and Suozzi, Schundler was a political outsider. He was young and charismatic. He would reform a stagnant bureaucracy. He would fight state government in Trenton, as Lindsay and Suozzi did in Albany. Despite some early success, Schundler's larger political ambitions hurt him in Jersey City.

Schundler chose not to run for re-election and focused on the New Jersey governor's race. Though winning the Republican nomination in 2001, he lost badly to Jim McGreevey in the general election and then lost in the Republican primary in 2005. His political career, once filled with so much promise, is now over.

The modern American voting public is drawn to young idealistic politicians. Perhaps it has something to do with John F. Kennedy and the mythology of Camelot. We are always looking to regain our supposed "lost innocence." We place high hopes in political figures who speak to our better angels and promise no more business as usual. New politics. Fresh ideas. Hope. Change.

Because of his tragic assassination, Kennedy never had much of a chance to stumble (with the exception of the Bay of Pigs). He never had the chance to grow gray in office or for voters to lose faith in him. To many still, Kennedy is that beacon of idealism that we keep seeking in our politicians.

It is, of course, an unrealistic dream. Politics, image-making and sloganeering are easy. Governing - especially the nitty-gritty of state and local government - is hard. It has a way of tarnishing the veneer of idealism. And political idealism raises expectations that are almost impossible to fulfill, leading to disillusionment. Once the original idealism fades, as it did for Lindsay and Schundler and appears to have done for Suozzi, it is difficult to recapture.

The old Tammany Hall politician George Washington Plunkitt put it best over a hundred years ago: "A reformer can't last in politics. He can make a show for a while, but he always comes down like a rocket."

It's a lesson that must also be dawning on Barack Obama, as he gets close to the end of his first year as president.


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