The Man Who Showed How to Organize Hatred

March 03, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

BOSTON — Boston. -- It is, as the young say, a no-brainer, this question of whether to name this city's new tunnel for Ted Williams, who hit .406 in 1941, or for James Michael Curley, who was mayor four times, twice as often as he went to jail. The Hall of Famer or the felon? Please.

But consider Curley's career. It cast a shadow forward.

A wit once said an urban boss dreaded three things -- the penitentiary, honest industry and, most of all, biography. Curley's biographer, Jack Beatty, an editor of The Atlantic Monthly, fits the description of the best biographer -- a conscientious enemy of his subject. He began writing ''The Rascal King'' more in admiration than aversion but ended in judicious disgust.

Curley was catalyst of a class conflict unusually raw because it pitted a particularly passionate ethnic group against the most dominant upper class in American history. Curley killed Boston's ''deference democracy,'' the alliance between Harvard and the slums, the former governing, the latter supposedly grateful. Curley pulverized that with the hammer of what is now called ''identity politics.'' By inciting Boston's Irish to vote their angry ethnicity, he made politics fit Henry Adams' definition -- the systematic organization of hatreds.

Born in 1874, when ''Brahmins'' ruled Boston, Curley died in 1958, as a Boston Irishman sought the presidency. He left school after the ninth grade but read voraciously -- especially in jail: ''I read 14 hours a day'' -- and admired the flamboyant Disraeli, the Jew who captured the aristocrats' party. Curley became a mesmerizing orator, whose campaigning would swell his neck size from 16 1/2 inches to 18.

He did not merely make a fortune on kickbacks from contractors and other graft, he flaunted it, building a mansion staffed with servants, taking lavish European tours during the depth of the Depression, golfing in Florida using Massachusetts state troopers as caddies. All was forgiven by the poor, who felt he was on their side. But Mr. Beatty believes Curley was ultimately an affliction to his supporters.

Curley, says the biographer, who is himself the son of an Irish-American janitor, sculpted a constituency from the clay of collective resentments. The Irish, driven to America by a potato famine and British policies they considered genocidal, were regarded by Boston's upper crust as ''the human equivalent of locusts.'' And, says Mr. Beatty, ''eating regularly filled the horizon of desire.''

These immigrants, made pessimistic by their history and fatalistic by their religion, were converted by Curley to the politics of the unreconciled. His career of 32 campaigns -- for alderman, State Assembly, Congress (5 times), mayor (10 times), governor (3 times) and U.S. Senate -- began in an age of political volcanoes such as Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan, and in a place rich in collective rancors. But what did the poor get from Curley other than catharsis?

Curley detested welfare. During the Depression he tried to prevent a minister from distributing food to the unemployed. A theme of the novel based on Curley's life, ''The Last Hurrah,'' was that welfare-state entitlements stopped Curley's kind of politics: when people are entitled, they do not need, or do, favors, which are the grease of political machines. Mr. Beatty believes that today's ''impersonal, dependency-inducing'' welfare system, purged of politics, has ''broken a contract beneficial to the whole society.''

''Our dependent poor,'' says Mr. Beatty, ''are not citizens. They get their benefits by formula, not according to their behavior. They have rights to these 'entitlements,' but no responsibilities.''

But he also argues that Curley's kind of contract -- public jobs exchanged for political support -- caused Boston to fall as Curley rose. Curleyism was funded by high commercial tax rates, so public jobs were paid for by private-sector jobs not created. It would have been a bad bargain even if graft had not diverted so much revenue away from public services.

''Many Bostonians,'' says Mr. Beatty, ''were worse off in 1950 than they or their families were in 1914, and Curley was a major reason why.'' And at the end Curley was so remote from reality he asked his chauffeur about signs he saw everywhere: ''Who is this fellow Pizza?''

Mr. Beatty recalls how a supporter of another ineffective paladin of the poor, Juan Peron, explained his support: ''Before Peron, I was poor and I was nobody. Now I am only poor.'' Today the politics of ''I am somebody!'' is practiced by Jesse Jackson and various grievance groups stressing their victimization and seeking a racial and ethnic spoils system. Curley can be seen as more a harbinger than as anachronism.

His career was Homeric in scale. But as to the name for that tunnel, three words say it all: Four Oh Six.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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