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Variations | ‘The Last Hurrah’

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PUBLISHED in 1956, Edwin O’Connor’s “The Last Hurrah” was hailed by the New York Times as “the best novel about American politics.” It was a bestseller and was adapted into a 1958 film with Spencer Tracy playing the lead role. The movie flopped but the novel lives on. Its author was a print and broadcast journalist and his main subjects were “big-boss” politics and its practitioners.

The novel’s hero is Frank Skeffington, the 72-year-old mayor of an unnamed East Coast city. He had been in politics for half a century, but was, once again, seeking re-election, much to the dismay of his opponents who, in each election year, had accused him of “abuse, mismanagement and corruption.” (Opposing these evils has been the platform of the opposition — “since ever since.” Of course once in power, they will be, eventually, accused of abuse, mismanagement and corruption.)

Many believed that Skeffington was a character based on former Massachusetts governor, congressman and Boston mayor James Michael Curley who won an unprecedented fourth term as mayor despite being indicted. (President Truman commuted his fellow Democrat’s sentence in 1947, and pardoned Curley in 1950 for his previous convictions.) The author himself said people shouldn’t confuse fact with fiction, but it was undeniable that his fictional Mayor Skeffington was as colorful and charming as real-life former Mayor Curley.

And just as smart: Mayor Skeffington “had no high opinion of the intelligence of the electorate, but experience had taught him that it quite adequately grasped the fact that all successful political activity was based on quid pro quo.”

The mayor took good care of his constituents. He would meet them in person in his own home, and he knew them by name and was familiar with their concerns. “In every case something was needed: a job, a letter of introduction, medical care for an ailing wife, a low-rent house, a pair of glasses, a transfer from one city department to another, a lawyer, a hardship discharge for a son in the army, money.” One of the supplicants was old and toothless Timsy Coughlin: “an ingenious deadbeat who came regularly for his handouts, each time bearing a fresh and highly fictional account of disaster.” After the mayor handed him $10 (worth about $94 today), Timsy headed to his favorite bar. “He’ll have three Jamesons,” Mayor Skeffington said, “and he’ll offer to fight anyone in the house who dares to say one word against Frank Skeffington. He’ll have three more Jamesons, then he’ll tell [the bartender] what a hardhearted scoundrel Frank Skeffington is for not putting him on the Civil Service…. Then he’ll begin to cry and say that the Irish are the most wonderful people in the world, but too sentimental for their own good. Finally, he’ll pass out and [the bartender] will see that he gets home.”

One of Skeffington’s trusted lieutenants and ward leaders was John Gorman. “It was he who found jobs and homes for the recently arrived, who supplied funds in time of distress, who arranged for hospitalization and the payment of medical bills, who gave the son of the family his start in life and the subsequent necessary pushes up the ladder, who built the playgrounds for the children of [his] populous district, and who, in these days when the aged, the helpless, and the indigent had come to depend increasingly upon government beneficence, saw to it that the baffling complexity of preliminary paper work was solved and that funds were ultimately secured.”

Among Mayor Skeffington’s critics was a newspaper published by an implacable foe, Amos Force. Regarding one of the newspaper’s political reporters, Skeffington said “there’s no guarantee that he really understood very much about what he was covering. The fact that he was a newspaperman would suggest that he didn’t….” For the mayor, the “finest example of an objective analyst we’ve ever had was a reporter named Mulrooney who used to write a City Hall column. He was so objective that he didn’t know where City Hall was.” They’re not bad fellows, the mayor said, referring to journalists. But most of them “don’t seem to be too strong on facts; no doubt they have an occupational distrust of them.”

Skeffington said “journalists are [also] responsible for this curious myth that public men fall out over public issues….” In the real world, the mayor said, “it’s just as easy to fall out over who said what to whose wife at a…party as over who voted which way on a harbor improvements bill. A good deal easier, in fact; most of our politicians have a sentimental attachment to their wives that they don’t have for their civic waterways. Now this kind of thing is true everywhere in public life — the friends and enemies of the dear departed F.D.R. can testify to that — but it’s even truer in this city and with our people; everybody knows everybody else and everybody remembers everything. There are twenty men in that outer office right now who couldn’t tell you at the point of a gun where I stood on the matter of low-cost public housing, but every last one of them would know to the day just when I moved from Devaney Street to the Avenue, or what year I took the trip to Bermuda with my mother, or what I said to our beloved Cardinal when he tried to grab a city parking lot as the site for a parochial school gymnasium.”

The old Cardinal was another powerful foe of Mayor Skeffington. “He plays Santa Claus in person every morning in his own home,” His Eminence grumbled. “The people come to him with empty stockings and he fills them: with jobs, dentures, eyeglasses, money — what have you. Every day is Christmas Day at the mayor’s house…. And you can talk from now until doomsday and all [the people will] understand is that no power on earth — and no scandal, however serious — can turn them against the man who shakes their hand, inquire solicitously for each member of their family by name…and who does so much for them, day after day, year after year.”

The mayor himself didn’t recommend politics as a profession, especially for young folks. “Long hours, hard work, at the beck and call of every lunatic with a vote in his pocket….” But then again, he said, politics is fascinating, especially for spectators. It’s “the greatest spectator sport in the country.  People begin as strangers and in a little while they know the names and numbers of all the players; a little while more and they’re telling the coaches how to run things.”

The mayor’s main election opponent was Kevin McCluskey:  young, handsome, well-educated, military veteran, family man with an attractive wife and young children. Moreover, he was telegenic and could hit all the right notes: he was against graft and corruption and mismanagement; he was for good government; he was for change.

Skeffington, who had heard it all before, was unimpressed. “I understand my opponent’s supporters refer to him as a young man of promise…. How right they are! I’ve never heard so many promises from one man in my life. So far, he’s promised to eliminate graft and corruption, to reduce the tax rate, to lower the cost of municipal transportation, to settle the city’s traffic problem, to give the firemen and policemen more money, to enlarge the municipal housing project, and to put a new wing on the Public Library. And I understand there are still more promises to come…. Just between ourselves, I continually wonder at my own effrontery in opposing this young man who’s going to do so much for us all. But then of course…[a]ll we’ve seen so far are the promises; we haven’t seen any performance…. That makes me wonder a bit. I find myself saying, ‘Where has this miracle man been up to now? What did he ever do? … Where’s he been hiding all these remarkable talents? … He has his promises. ‘Have faith!’ is what he says. ‘I’ll do it! I’ve never given you the slightest evidence I can do it, but have faith! I will!’ … The familiar promissory note is once more extended; the cry of ‘Have faith!’ is heard once more from our own local water-walker. The question is, I think, how many of us are willing to believe that a miracle will be passed, and the note redeemed….”

Quite a lot actually.

 

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