The bad old U.S. politics: more intimate than today

The Argument

The raw, unashamed bosses combined the iron hand and the nimble mind.

March 18, 2001|By C. Fraser Smith | By C. Fraser Smith,Sun Staff

When Jersey City Mayor Thomas Gangemi applied for a passport in early 1964, the U.S. State Department denied it on the grounds that he was not a citizen of the United States. This charge arose, it was said, because Gangemi had made a big enemy: Hudson County's political boss, John V. Kenny.

Kenny wanted Gangemi out of his hair completely. To accomplish that feat, he cashed an IOU with Lyndon Baines Johnson, then president of the United States.

Enter the State Department. Exit Mayor Gangemi: If you aren't a citizen, you can't hold public office. (Many turn-of-the-century immigrants didn't know if they were born in Italy or Ireland or Greece, while their parents were on a boat to the U.S. or after they arrived.)

Known for such shenanigans -- and worse -- Kenny once allegedly commandeered the campaign motorcade of Adlai Stevenson and steered it to the Kenny front steps so the boss and the otherwise unwilling candidate could be photographed together.

Politics ain't bean bag, as the philosopher Finley Peter Dunne liked to say. It's life and death. It's power and the willingness to use it. The old urban machines are much maligned, but they had color and intimacy largely sucked out of politics today.

You couldn't always endorse what they did, but you had to admire the nerve and the ingenuity of the old pols. The iron hand and the nimble mind could be awesome to behold.

Both were needed to bring order out of chaotic competition for jobs and favored position as machine candidates. Political correctness never occurred to these men. They swore by paying your dues, waiting your turn and displaying your loyalty. Together, they meant party discipline, a system in which the players could count on being "made" (a Maryland term for the conferring of a political job). Life became orderly and efficient instead of mean and brutish.

Imagine how they felt, then, when Democrats in Washington went all soft and began to help minorities who, social scientists insisted, had been held out of the political system by these same politically incorrect bosses. Anyone who doesn't think the war on poverty gave blacks access to public office didn't notice Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's bitter complaints to the Johnson Administration.

He wasn't the only big-city boss to cry foul.

In Providence, R.I., Lawrence P. McGarry (the party leader, known as Mr. Democrat) looked me in the eye with a suspicious intensity that a half-smart young reporter could feel if not understand.

"What do they make over there?" he inquired, referring to the city's antipoverty agency. "Soup? Bricks? What?"

He knew what they made at Progress for Providence, the city's official community action agency: They made trouble for him. They were a government-financed political insurgency.

P for P, as we called it, had jobs to hand out. Mr. Democrat spat out his disapproval. Nobody had given him a leg up. And now that he was the gatekeeper, the favor giver and the job provider, somebody in Washington was going to push him aside. Like hell!

McGarry found ways to fend off the best shots of his adversaries. He infiltrated the P for P boards or its executive staff. Bosses all over the country did the same thing.

By their lights, men like McGarry fought to keep what they had won by strength of ethnic numbers and organizational skill. Boss leaders like Tommy J. D'Alesandro Jr. ruled Baltimore by knowing their constituents intimately: where they drank, where they prayed, where they worked, their children's names. They worked their wards with the religious commitment of a farmer tending his crops.

For the ward-heeling fraternity, the fields were blighted by television and by their own successes: the Democratic faithful of Baltimore, for example, moved to Baltimore County and then to Harford. The Clubhouse muscle atrophied.

Political consultants became more important than election day faithful like Peck Jones, the Stonewall Democratic Club lieutenant who shoved a thousand sample ballots through mail slots every election day -- and then proudly stood to report the results of his labor: 300-to-1 majorities were typical in many precincts with veterans like Peck.

In New England, the ethnic bosses took over from entrenched political and business elites -- patrician, Yankee WASPs who aggressively discriminated against Irish immigrants. As the immigrant electorate grew, men like Larry McGarry, James Michael Curley in Boston or Tammany Hall's Al Smith in New York spearheaded important social and economic reforms. Their power drew legitimacy from the system, from the voters and from a sometimes crude ideal of justice.

They were brazen problem solvers, but they were often quite courageous and always adaptable.

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