The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley, An Epic of Urban Politics and Irish America

By Jack Beatty V3

Addison-Wesley V3

571 pages $25.00 V3

New York's hot U.S. Senate battle, pitting incumbent Al D'Amato against Attorney General Bob Abrams, is viewed by many analysts as classic ethnic politics. Will Italians vote in record numbers because they are offended by alleged slurs? Will the Jewish vote stick with one of its own or break toward D'Amato, who is sympathetic to issues that interest Jews? Political junkies, no doubt, will have a grand time analyzing tomorrow's election results.

As the mud is being tossed in the Senate race, however, it is actually the age-old concept of inner-city ethnic politics that is catching the bulk of the sludge. One can't expect much sympathy from New York voters who originated from the Carolinas or Ohio -- they're hopeless when it comes to understanding the basic fabric of urban society. But when second-generation ethnics who live in the city's bedroom communities of Bay Shore and Hicksville start sounding like the out-of-towners, one knows the social engineers' smears are having an impact.

Observing man's political nature, Aristotle concluded that without communal ties, he is "tribeless, lawless, heartless." And contrary to the views of the progressive ideologues, little has changed in the past 2,000 years.

When immigrants arrived in Boston or New York, they looked to settle with their own kind. Fearing the unknown, they wanted to be close to those they trusted and with whom they had something in common. The cities turned into patchworks of ethnic enclaves, not melting pots. In the 1920s, for example, each block of Little Italy in New York or Boston represented different villages or regions.

For people adjusting to the cold metropolis, national origins were important because they reinforced their values. Their ethnic consciousness preserved the virtues of loyalty, family, hard work, and respect for order, and permitted them to move up the economic scale. They developed political loyalties based on these instinctive beliefs and supported for officer their own, who fought for them.

Inner cities thrived in the early decades of this century because ethnic politics and neighborhoods were responsible for political and social stability. These ethnics worked hard and lived by the maxim of one Irish pol, "If you can't be loyal to your friends, you can't be loyal to an idea." It was very different from the contemporary view of ethnic diversity, which encourages proportionalism and quotas.

For those who want to further their education in ethnic politics, "The Rascal King" should prove to be a good read. The book does contain one serious flaw, however; the editor failed to cut from the text the author's superfluous ideological baggage. One always expects slant, yet Jack Beatty bores the reader with numerous pages devoted to describing his scorn for contemporary Republican leaders from Nixon to Reagan to Barbara Bush.

His dribble becomes totally absurb when he describes Boston's James Michael Curley as "a pragmatist of Bushian dimension -- he would do whatever it takes to win." Looking at President Bush's re-election efforts, the Rogue Mayor of Boston would be offended by the comparison.

Of the inner-city political figures, Curley was certainly the most colorful. To the struggling immigrant, he was a cultural and economic savior. To the Brahmin, he was a thieving guttersnipe.

Although he had only a fourth-grade education, young James Michael had no intention of becoming a laborer. Blessed with good looks, a melodious voice, and a sharp wit, he looked to politics for salvation. In a city that considered the immigrant "the human equivalent of locust," a political career was often the only way to improve one's lot.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan has written that the genius of the Irish was organization. And in the age of ethnic politics, the Irish developed the machine that served as the broker for various groups. Curley had the gift; he was the broker par excellence. "Economic frustration and class hatred and ethnic resentment, thwarted hope and strangled aspiration," writes Beatty, "were the mute causes the found tribune in James Michael Curley."

In 1904, Curley was approached by an unemployed local who beseeched him to take the civil service exam in his stead. (The Civil Service Act, the pride of good government reformers, had been enacted to keep quasi-illiterate immigrants off the federal payroll.) Curley agreed to the scheme, was caught, indicted, convicted and sentenced to prison. Running for alderman, he refused to apologize. "I did it for a friend," he said, and won election while serving in the big house.

With that victory, Curley embarked on a remarkable political career that included a race for state representative, five congressional races, 10 races for mayor, three for governor, and a run for U.S. senator.

Curley, in 1914, was elected to the first of his four terms as mayor of Boston. He proved that one could overcome racial and economic barriers by appealing to the pride and needs of the downtrodden.

"No country," he said, "is ever ruined by a virile, intelligent, God-fearing patriotic people like the Irish, and no land was ever saved by clubs of female faddists, old gentlemen with disordered livers, or pessimists croaking over imaginary good old days and ignoring the sunlit present."

Decades before the birth of the poverty industry and public policy specialists and social engineers, the machine pols realized that the job of local government was to provide basic services. Ideology did not enter the picture. The need to forge alliances to win votes did.

The system worked because, as more than one historian pointed out, immigrants trying to gain a foothold in their new country received aid without losing their dignity. As historian George Reedy noted, "one of the great strengths of the political machines was their treatment of poor people as human beings rather than ~cases.'"

Every morning, during Curley's stewardship, the citizenry would line up outside his home. From 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., the mayor would personally listen to their woes. Averaging 200 visitors a day, Curley played the role of Godfather and social worker. In the past, local government merely punished people; Curley changed that by adhering to the simple philosophy that government should help people get work, not charity. He had, according to Beatty, "a moral detestation of welfare."

Even during the Depression he would not fund relief programs because he feared they would contribute to the breakdown of society. "I would rather spend $10 to keep people working," he said, "than give $2 to the dole."

To provide jobs, Curley turned the city of Boston into a 20th century metropolis. Curley completed the Strandway of South Boston, spent $3 million on the refurbishing of city buildings, razed more than 2,000 slum dwellings, opened 12 new parks, added three separate subway extensions, rebuilt bridges, cleared mud flats for beaches and bathhouses, and widened major streets. To provide, the muscle for this work, he established a Municipal Employment Bureau that put unemployed ex-soldiers on the city payroll while cutting the relief budget dramatically.

The establishment, shocked by Curley's popularity and success, tried to stop him with a law that prevented a mayor from succeeding himself. But it wasn't enough, and for the next 30 years this man they referred to as the "codfish fuehrer" and "Irish Mussolini" would haunt them. Curley would go on to serve 12 more years as mayor, two as governor, and six as U.S. representative.

Was there a shady side to Curley? Definitely. There's no doubt that throughout his political career he lined his pockets. Curley was a member in good standing of the school of honest graft. When cutting a deal or inaugurating a public project, "Himself" would always ask, "What's in it for me?"

Investigated for years, in 1943 the 69-year-old Congressman Curley and four other members of a lobbying firm called Engineers Group Inc. were indicted on mail fraud charges. Before the case came to trial, Curley was re-elected to Congress in 1944, and in 1945 he won his fourth mayoral term. A month after the election he was found guilty, and after losing in the appellate courts, he was sentenced on June 26, 1947, to an 18-month prison term.

"Curley's Law," passed by the state legislature, permitted His Honor to continue collecting his salary while in the slammer. Over 100,000 people, including 100 members of Congress, signed a petition requesting President Truman to grant executive clemency. Five months into Curley's prison term, Truman commuted the sentence, and Curley was free to serve out his final term as mayor.

One interesting political side-light: only one Massachusetts congressman refused to sign the petition -- freshman John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Curley had been elected to his first term as mayor by black-mailing incumbent John Fitzgerald out of the race. Thirty years later Honey Fitz's grandson settled the score.

Even though he was politically washed up, in the last decade of his life Curley became a living legend with the publication of Edwin O'Connor's "The Last Hurrah." The novel's leading character, Mayor Frank Skeffington, based on a romantic view of Curley, gave His Honor the secular equivalent of eternal life.

The death of Curley in 1958 also marked the passing of an era that viewed local government as "the personal politics of help and succor." For the next generation, social engineers in the name of the New Frontier and the Great Society would devote their energies to destroying the neighborhood and the values it protected.

But after all their pounding, when the dust settled in the 1980s, they were shocked to learn that tribal loyalties still existed. Devotion to family, land, and cultural heritage still mattered in enclaves throughout our inner cities. And this resilience is the genuine legacy of urban America's leading ethnic politicians, men such as Al Smith and James Curley.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.