[ Steve Eide is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and also runs its fiscal policy oriented web site Public Sector, Inc.. After seeing Pete Saunders’ piece on the three generations of black mayors in America, he sent me the piece below with the same three generations structure, but talking about political boss rule, using Hollywood as a point of departure. It’s a great piece I’m delighted to get to share – Aaron. ]
Between roughly the Civil War and World War II, most American cities were at some point dominated by a boss and his machine. The term “boss” referred not only a powerful politician, but one who acquired, held and exercised power outside the channels dictated by law. Progressive reformers fought the bosses for control of American city government for over a century. The Progressives ultimately won, or, at least, the bosses lost.
All this is well known. What is less well known is that the entire history of bossism is contained in three films: Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (the origin), Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty (the peak), and John Ford’s The Last Hurrah (decline).
Gangs of New York: How Tammany Hall Civilized New York City
Gangs of New York (Gangs) takes place in New York City during the Civil War. Its plot concerns the war between Irish and nativist gangs for control of lower Manhattan. Both lose, leading to the rise of Tammany Hall, whose innovative manner of conflict resolution laid the foundation for modern New York. The ward heelers replace the warlords and the rigid identities of immigrant and nativist are dissolved. That’s how New York was tamed.
The film’s most memorable character is Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), the nativist gang leader bent on keeping the Irish down. A primitive man, Bill resembles Homer’s Cyclops in that he has only one eye and maintains his political authority through the open threat of violence. He’s the sometimes ally of Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), who functions as Tweed’s liaison to the slums of lower Manhattan.
In Gangs’ moral order, Boss Tweed represents progress. Tweed’s understanding of progress means thievery on a grand scale (rigging contracts for a new courthouse vs. exacting tribute from pubescent pickpockets) and bringing the Irish into the fold. Tweed tells Bill that to rely purely on violence is crude and inflexible, and he vows that Bill won’t last if he doesn’t adapt. Bill is less greedy than Tweed, and more principled in his own (bigoted) way. He’s ferociously independent, but also fatalistic. Bill knows that Tweed is right that his days are numbered. Nonetheless, he will go down fighting.
But the debate between Bill and Tweed is really a side show. Gangs’ main action concerns the struggle between the Irish and natives. The Irish are if anything even more primitive than Bill. They live in torch-lit caves, they are vengeful and as bigoted towards blacks as Bill’s crowd, and they reject the Civil War. Unlike Bill, the Irish have a bright future, but they, too, have bitter truths to learn. They seem to think that they can be New Yorkers without also being Americans. They are wrong. Scorsese asserts this by making the film’s climax not the 1863 draft riots themselves but the Union Army’s brutal suppression of them. The Army forces the Irish to submit to the legitimacy of the Civil War, and, by extension, the unconditional obligations implied by American citizenship. (Nation-building, 19th-century style.) Becoming American means becoming an American citizen, and citizenship implies renouncing the right to pick and choose among one’s obligations, and not least during times of crisis. Scorsese is slightly less clear about what becoming less Irish and more American will mean for the Irish than he is about the nativists’ education. But, at bare minimum, it means that they too will have to become more tolerant and capable of solving their conflicts through politics instead of violence.
Tammany did not itself vanquish the gangs (which were real by the way-see Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York (1928), on which the film was based, and Tyler Ambinder’s Five Points (2010)). That task required guns and muscle. But, in providing a ready-at-hand political alternative to the gangs, Tammany answered the question what next?
What is the purpose of city government? It is not only to provide basic services such as education and street-cleaning, but to manage conflict. Government is much more than just a fee-for-service arrangement. Humans tend to disagree about the true and the good, which produces conflict, which we need politicians to manage for us by means of persuasion, intimidation, flattery, deal making, and so forth. Politics will always be with us and we will always need politicians.
The urban party machines excelled at managing conflict. If we believe that honest, rational debate will be inadequate to resolve most conflicts, then something else will be necessary to prevent government from being rendered completely impotent and to minimize the potential for violence. In most functional democracies, that “something else” has been a party system. Centuries of political experience strongly suggest that a democracy requires some form of organized mediation to recruit and vet candidates for office, and then, when in office, provide them with the support they need to be effective. “Parties are as natural to democracy as churches to religion (James Q. Wilson).”
Scorsese seems to understand these virtues of boss rule, while remaining aware of its corruption and vulgarity. Gangs argues that boss rule was an improvement over what came before: the gangs were just as corrupt, more violent, less enlightened, and, most crucially, pettier. Modern New York for Scorsese is, above all, a great city. Tweed was not a great man, but, according to Scorsese, Tweed’s political system provided the conditions for New York’s future greatness.
The Great McGinty: Bossism Ascendant
The Great McGinty (McGinty) takes place in an unnamed American city sometime in the first half of the 20th century. Its plot traces the title character’s (Brian Donlevy) rise from the soup line to the governorship by means of his skills at repeat-voting, fighting, bullying, carousing, wisecracking, bid-rigging and spending public money wastefully. “The boss” (Akim Tamiroff) gives McGinty his initial break and then directs his rise. McGinty chafes under the rule of the boss, and hilarity, and McGinty’s downfall, ensue. The third major character is McGinty’s wife (Muriel Angelus), his moral guide, who bucks him up to reject the boss.
McGinty depicts boss rule at its height, when it seemed almost the natural form of American city government. Sturges gives us the fully-developed specimen. All of the essential features of Progressive age city politics are in evidence:
First, the boss was often not the mayor. Of the 20 municipal bosses surveyed in Harold Zink’s City Bosses in the United States (1930), 19 held some public office of some kind, but only two were mayors. There was no reason for the boss himself to be the mayor, since it was a ceremonial position with no real power. The office now known as the “strong mayor” did not become common until well into the 20th century. Progressive reformers strengthened the office of mayor by wresting fiscal and administrative authority away from the local legislature and lengthening the term of office. This left no choice to the boss but to become mayor. What few bosses have emerged to dominate urban politics since WWII have all been mayors. Examples include Richard Daley pere, Philadelphia’s Frank Rizzo, and Newark’s Sharpe James.
Second, Machine politics was genuinely democratic in the sense that it enabled men to rise from exceedingly humble beginnings to positions of high authority. In this respect, a real life equivalent of McGinty would be Harry Truman, who owed his career to Tom Pendergast, the notorious boss of Kansas City.
Third, the lines between reformer and boss could be sometimes blurry. McGinty is first elected as a reform candidate (“Down with McBoodle! Up with McGinty!”). Wise bosses were highly sensitive to public opinion. They sometimes had to run candidates who were just distant enough from the machine to be considered graft-free. This practice was known as “perfuming the ticket.” Problem was, such candidates did not always stay in line when they got into office. Sometimes they chafed like McGinty did.
Fourth, women hated grafters. The Progressive-era movements for women’s suffrage and municipal reform were practically indistinguishable. Women getting the vote dealt the bosses a grievous blow.
McGinty is a satire and therefore anti-boss. Sturges certainly expects us to like McGinty, the boss and the gang, and McGinty does eventually redeem himself by breaking with the boss (on top of earning the love of a good woman), but to say that his deep engagement in machine politics required redemption implies that bossism was a rotten system. The audience’s proxy is McGinty’s wife. She loves him, but she certainly doesn’t love his politics.
At the same time, Sturges depicts a world in which bossism as such is not seriously under threat. No fundamental structural reforms are at hand, just the occasional defeat at the polls and visit to the hoosegow.
The Last Hurrah: Ciphers Ascendant
The Last Hurrah’s protagonist Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy) is based on Boston’s James Michael Curley. We know this because of the many details drawn directly from Curley’s eventful life and career: Skeffington’s longstanding feuds with his city’s Cardinal and with the bluebloods, his personal dislike for FDR, his uxoriousness, his considerable charm and rhetorical skills, and the fact that he’s an old man running yet again for mayor in a predominantly Irish New England city. Skeffington’s final campaign forms the plot of Hurrah. Its events transpire in the mid-20th century, contemporaneously with the film itself (1958) and the book on which it was based (by Edwin O’Connor, published in 1956). Skeffington loses, to a young, upwardly-mobile Irish American put up by the local WASP establishment. Times have changed since Skeffington entered politics in the late 19th century. TV and radio have replaced flesh-pressing and spontaneous, street-corner oratory. The city is wealthier, and some of that wealth has reached the Irish, Skeffington’s traditional base. Their wealth has made them less resentful, rendering WASP-baiting demagoguery less effective than it used to be. Skeffington is aware of these changes, but he’s still convinced that one last victory is in his grasp. He believes that all it will take is a mix of charm, intimidation, patronage and loyalty, but events prove him wrong.
Skeffington’s is a personal machine. Bosses created machines, not vice versa. All urban machines depended on the leadership from a strong boss. We see this in the fact that we tend to refer to most of the important machines by the names of the boss who gave them life and influence (Pendergast, Hague, Crump). Tammany Hall, which did manage to last a long time and transcend the leadership of individual bosses, was the exception, not the rule.
And in that he controls the machine and not vice versa, Skeffington may be said to be his own man, the genuine article. He may be a bit of a grafter, but, in Hurrah, he’s not the candidate beholden to special interests. That would be McCluskey, Skeffington’s nebbish opponent. The film argues that, for all their faults, decline of Skeffington and his like heralded a more inauthentic form of politics. (The phrase used in Hurrah the novel is “a generation of ciphers.”) Politicians would thenceforth be packaged, handled and promoted like so many different brands of soap. The backlash against scriptedness and inauthenticity we see in the appeal of candidates such as Herman Cain and Ross Perot. These are not great men, but, in that authenticity is surely a condition of greatness, the decline of Skeffington’s ways portends the decline of greatness in city politics.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that Hurrah depicts the last stages of unity and reconciliation projected by Gangs. The subtitle of The Last Hurrah could be The Revenge of the WASP. Skeffington finds himself fighting against both the new Irish middle-class and old money Protestants. His moment seems to have been a blip, a brief transition phase in American urban history. By the film’s conclusion, history has come full circle and ethnic conflicts are resolved in a way that could never have happened while blueblood-baiters like Skeffington remained in power.
It’s somewhat difficult for the audience to appreciate how Skeffington could have lost to McCluskey. Based on what we are shown, the latter seems like a total boob. But we’re not the voters. To the increasingly affluent second and third generation Irish-Americans, Skeffington comes off as uncouth, just as he always did to the WASPs. They want a mayor that mirrors their conception of themselves: young, well-educated (in a conventional sense), nicely (not nattily) attired, and untainted by unsavory connections and loyalties.
In their classic study City Politics (1963), Edward Banfield and James Q. Wilson argued that this trend was general among ethnic voters in the American city at mid-century. Yes, Jews still preferred to vote for Jewish candidates, Irish for Irish candidates and so on, but:
[t]he candidates must not be too Polish, too Italian, or too Irish in the old style…[N]owadays, the nationality-minded voter prefers candidates who represent the ethnic group but at the same time display the attributes of the generally admired Anglo-Saxon model. The perfect candidate, then, is of Jewish, Polish, Italian, or Irish extraction and has the speech, dress, manner, and the public virtues-honesty, impartiality, and devotion to the public interest-of the upper-class Anglo-Saxon (p.43).
According to Hurrah, the Progressives were far less consequential in bringing down the bosses than two other factors. First, New Deal social welfare programs devalued the soft and hard currencies with which the machines purchased the immigrant vote (this thesis is advanced more explicitly in the book than the film). Second, the rising tide of prosperity produced the lace curtain Irish, who were wealthier, younger and less angry than their parents and grandparents who had composed Skeffington’s base. There are Progressives in Hurrah, who provide important leadership and money, but this was a battle that they had been waging for decades. Why did they prove more successful at this moment? Because the Irish were ready to move on.
Gangs, McGinty and Hurrah set the standard not only because of their combination of historical accuracy and artistic merit, but because they are actually about politics. David Simon’s The Wire is probably the most highly-regarded recent treatment of city politics. But Simon doesn’t take politics seriously. The Wire holds that the real life of the city occurs in society, not government, and that politicians and their policies and institutions cause more problems than they solve.
Aside from the 2004 Gangs, most of the first-class filmmakers and writers in our own time tend to look past city politics. No one makes movies like these anymore. Perhaps the triumph of the Progressive vision of municipal reform made city politics less colorful. Hurrah portends a future of McCluskeys. But the problem cannot be purely for lack of material: there is nothing McCluskey-esque about Rudy Giuliani, Baltimore’s William Donald Schaefer, Philadelphia’s Ed Rendell and Providence’s Buddy Cianci. All made great copy, and yet they seem to have been largely overlooked by our more serious poets, filmmakers and novelists.