Boston's Powerful Rogue

James Curley dominated Hub politics for decades - even from jail

JAMES MICHAEL CURLEY was a politician's politician: Over a 50-year period, he served as mayor of Boston four times and governor of Massachusetts once, and he was a congressman for two four-year stints more than 30 years apart. He was a city alderman, councilman, state representative, and unsuccessful United States Senate candidate.

But the man had a serious flaw: He was unabashedly corrupt. During his first term as mayor, he built an opulent neo-Georgian mansion on Boston's Jamaicaway while earning a mere $10,000 mayoral salary. As a state representative in 1903, he was convicted of fraud for impersonating a member of his staff in a civil-service examination. He spent 60 days in jail. After another mayoral stint, Curley was charged with theft from the city, and after 34 continuances in the legal proceeding, he was finally ordered t o pay back $42,000. In 1947, while mayor again, he served five months of an 18-month jail sentence for mail fraud.

Curley's remarkable story is told in "The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley," by Jack Beatty, a senior editor of The Atlantic. It is not the first telling of the tale: Curley was the model for Mayor Frank Skeffington in Edwin O'Connor's novel "The Last Hurrah," which was later made into a movie starring Spencer Tracy. But Beatty does an exemplary job of stripping away the many Curley myths that still abound in Boston. Using a multitude of sources, he reveals the complexity and contr adictions of the man as he really was.

It's impossible to understand Curley without understanding Boston, and vice versa. The Puritan Commonwealth of Massachusetts had, by the 1840s, become a prosperous, self-satisfied Yankee stronghold dominated by its own aristocracy, the famous Brahmins, almost all of whom were Unitarians, Congregationalists, or Episcopalians. Into this society poured tens of thousands of poor, Roman Catholic Irish immigrants escaping the death wrought by the potato famine.

The Irish in Boston ran smack into what many historians agree was the most inhospitable welcome ever granted white immigrants in this country. The influx gave birth to the anti-Catholic "Know-Nothing" movement; "No Irish need apply" was a common caveat in help-wanted ads.

Boston's Irish had no means to move on, and in many cases they settled into deplorable slums in the city. As Boston began a long decline after the Civil War, the Irish found upward mobility denied them by both discrimination and the decaying economy. Not until after World War II did many break free of poverty.

Boston's perennial politician came from the same social background that was to produce two Speakers of the House of Representatives (John W. McCormack and Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr.), the Kennedys, and a host of other Massachusetts politicians of Irish descent who have served the nation with distinction.

While most of them tried to build coalitions that reached beyond an ethnic and religious base, Curley's strategy was to play on the traditional fears and pent-up frustrations of his people.

Typical was this quote from his congressional race against incumbent Democrat Thomas Eliot in 1942: "My young opponent is a Unitarian. Do you know what a Unitarian is? ... A Unitarian is a person who believes that our Lord and Savior is a funny little man with a beard who runs around in his underclothes."

Curley was a practitioner of hardball politics. While battering his opponents with the kind of oratory that has since disappeared in American political life, he was not against the use of sexual blackmail or even physical battery to run a rival off the playing field. He ended the mayoral career of John F. Fitzgerald (John F. Kennedy's grandfather) by threatening to expose an extramarital affair, thus earning Curley the enmity of the Kennedy family. He was not above sending his own campaign workers into C atholic South Boston pretending to be Baptists canvassing for an opponent, or mailing out notices to opponents' supporters instructing them to appear at the wrong polling place.

Yet like Marion Barry in Washington today, Beatty says, Curley remained popular because he appeared to deliver on his promises. He understood the value of symbolism; one of his first acts as mayor was to obtain long-handled mops to get the City Hall cleaning women off their knees. He was forever providing money and jobs to the indigent, actions that played well against the perceived stinginess of the Republicans who still controlled the State House.

Yet in the end, Beatty explains, Curley delivered far less than it appeared. For example, as governor during the Great Depression, Curley had the opportunity to help bring in millions of federal dollars to provide jobs; instead, he delayed implementation of needed programs by arguing with Washington over who would control the money, driven by his hope to divert public-works spending to crony contractors.

Perhaps worse, Curley funded his many building projects by hiking taxes on Boston commercial property while keeping residential property taxes low. This drove business into the suburbs, exacerbating Boston's economic decline. Only in the 1960s would the city begin to recover.

Beatty quotes this newspaper: "For many years," wrote the Monitor at the time of Curley's State House wake, "Mr. Curley was one of the most controversial political figures in the United States. Even his most bitter opponents recognized that he was a man of exceptional political ability.... On the other hand, it was often said that, had he used his abilities in other ways, he might have made a far greater contribution to American life."

Beatty's biography is a gripping narration of an important episode in American political history. His somewhat simplistic portrayals of "good" Democrats and "bad" Republicans will annoy some. And his comparison of Curley's form of graft with today's questionable, but legal, campaign financing will seem to others a bit of a stretch.

But these minor flaws do not get in the way of an eminently readable volume. If you love politics, read this book this year if you read no other.

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