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Martin Nolan

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Hugh Carey: New York Mensch

Posted: 08/11/11 05:56 PM ET

He had the wit of Jimmy Walker, the vision of Al Smith, the courage of FDR and the energy of Nelson Rockefeller. And he could croon like Sinatra.

When New York's history is written, Hugh Leo Carey will have his place as the hero of a dark decade. The 1970s is a time many people, especially New Yorkers, easily forget. "A sour decade," Russell Baker called it.

Some of it rubbed off on Carey, a widower with 14 children. Three of his sons predeceased him. "You gents of the Fourth Estate call me mercurial and what's the other word? Starts with M?" Mordant, morose? "I'll take 'mordant.'"

For two terms in Albany, while his native city was falling apart, Gov. Carey kept it together. No prizefighter, no hero in pinstripes was a greater champion for New York.

In Congress, Republicans tried to redistrict him, reasoning that while most of Brooklyn belonged to Democrats, Bay Ridge was theirs. The result included a single-lane salamander, the Brooklyn-Queens expressway. He prevailed, winning seven terms in Congress.

On the Ways and Means Committee. Carey talked of moral issues, shocking his colleagues. "This committee is sick and tired of welfare protesters and sick and tired of the poor who come to city hall because their children have no shoes to wear," he said in 1971. "A Judeo-Christian concern for the poor is very hard to find in this committee."

He was a New Deal liberal, but collaborated with Republicans, notably Gov. Rockefeller with whom he worked to get more federal aid for states and cities. In 1967, I was surprised to see him show up when a Republican presidential candidate, Gov. George Romney of Michigan, visited his district. "If the governor wants to learn about cities and learn about Brooklyn, I'm happy to help him," Carey said. "He might be president."

Few political sages gave Carey a chance to win the gubernatorial primary in 1974, but he did, then won election easily. What he did for New York has been documented in a posting by a man who should know, Ed Koch.

Like Koch, Carey belonged to "the greatest generation," people who knew real heroism and saw little need to talk about it. Private Carey earned a Bronze Star and a Combat Infantryman's Badge and became Colonel Carey.

He was "the best damn governor of New York since Al Smith," said his friend and ally, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In the 1970s, Carey and Moynihan joined two other Irish-American notables, Ted Kennedy and Tip O'Neill, to oppose violence in Northern Ireland. "The Four Horsemen" are honored in Ireland now, but were scorned and even threatened by many constituents then. They shared courage and determination.

When Jimmy Carter signed the bill that brought federal help for New York, Carey was the M.C., getting Felix Rohatyn a better chair. He also conferred with the bandleader, who seemed puzzled, but nodded.

After, I asked him about his musical instructions."I told him to play 'Happy Days' and they played the theme from the TV show! I wanted 'Happy Days Are Here Again.' I wanted to show the world that New York has having a Roosevelt moment."

From Massena to Montauk, Hugh Carey gave New York many Roosevelt moments.