Monday, April 5, 2010

Curley Politics: Fake Hate / Care Never Quite Out of Style

Time magazine reports that Rep. Andre Carson (D-Indiana) told a reporter that he and Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) recently left the Cannon House Office Building and were subjected to a group of individuals chanting "the N-word, the N-word, 15 times." Jim Clyburn (D- South Carolina) called the behavior of protesters "absolutely shocking" and added that he had "heard people saying things today that I have not heard since March 15, 1960, when I was marching to try to get off the back of the bus."

While there are those who will leap at the opportunity to redirect heat from wildly controversial (if not unpopular) legislation, and of course those who will rejoice at every opportunity they can find to declare political opponents "evil" and portray themselves as the victims of "hate" ... we, frankly, cannot get past the simple, bothersome suggestion that there actually was such behavior, in this day and age. For that reason, we choose to leap at - and rejoice over - the fact that, to date, there appears to not be a single shred of evidence that that any of these things happened, other than 1) the word of persons who made the claims 2) reporters willing to report such claims  for sensational effect, all the while using words like "apparently" and "evidently" and 3) partisan cheerleaders who are simply in it for the smear.

These reported incidents appear, to us, as little more than the century old politics of  James Michael Curley. Indeed, we suspect old Curley is smiling, somewhere, right now.

Curley sat for the December 1902 civil service exam under a false name, then got caught cheating. In 1903, he became the first member of the Massachusetts state legislature to be arrested on a criminal charge. His lawyers argued government witnesses were politically biased, but the jury needed only 90 minutes to decide otherwise. With a maximum sentence of two years and a potential fine of $10,000 hovering above him, Curley was quite fortunate to come away with a mere two-month sentence. The court's leniency, however, was interpreted as a reflection of the weakness of the case! Curley responded in a characteristic manner - declaring himself a candidate for the Board of Aldermen, the upper chamber of the Boston’s city government.

The Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected formal appeals, so Curley faced Judge Lowell once more. On the evening before sentencing, Curley told a gathering of supporters that his civil service exam stunt was no more serious than if he had gotten drunk or broken a window. In addition, he did what he did “without the slightest criminal intent” or “desire to hurt or injure the community or nation.” Curley proudly confessed that he had simply made an “effort” to “assist” two "neighbors” who wished to "better their condition” and “obtain the necessities of life.” To validate his argument, Curley led everyone in the singing of America. The result: Curley was elected to the Board of Aldermen, but had to make a brief stop at Charles Street prison.

Harry S Truman would grant James Curley a full and unconditional pardon for his fraudulent civil service exam forty-six years later, but Curley did not sit around waiting for forgiveness. No, he tapped into the “people skills” he learned as an "organizer" of church social functions and grocery delivery boy. He was elected Democratic Congressman in 1910 and within a year was appointed minority whip. He served three terms as the Mayor of the City of Boston (1914-1918, 1922-1926, and 1930-1934) and one term as Governor of Massachusetts (1935-1937). Curley returned to the House of Representatives (1943-1947) before being elected to a fourth term as Mayor of Boston (1947-1950).

Far from being ashamed of his federal conviction, Curley went so far as to plant stooges in public audiences to stand and ask (in feigned aggression), “What about the time you went to jail?” Stunned, captivated listeners would then be treated to an impressive display of well-scripted rhetoric about “caring” and “helping out” and the importance of  “sacrificing” for “friends.”

Why, speaking of friends: Curley once mailed a letter to Josephine Kennedy with some friendly advice. He recommending that she encourage her husband, Mayor John F. Fitzgerald, to withdraw his 1913 bid for reelection or deal with breaking news that he got along especially well with a twenty-three year old, blonde cigarette girl named “Toodles” (a.k.a. Elizabeth Ryan). When Curley officially announced an upcoming series of public speeches on the world’s “great lovers,” Fitzgerald pulled out of the race. Curley won and gracelessly laced his inaugural address with harsh criticisms of the Fitzgerald administration as the former Mayor sat directly behind him on the stand.

Curley's campaign staff would find themselves placing rude, late night / early morning phones calls while pretending to be working for other candidates. Sometimes, Curley would have them burn crosses at a distance from a platform where he was to give a speech in order to create the illusion that the Ku Klux Klan opposed him, his candidacy and everything that he stood for. Audiences admired the brutal, raw courage  which Curley displayed under the scope of his Klansmen critics / employees. He would rant and rave about the "brotherhood" of man and the poisonous nature of "bigotry" and shake his fist defiantly in the air, right in the face of his hate-mongering opponents. The applause that followed the profound (and well-timed) moments of self-righteous stupor was deafening. Curley then paid off his white-sheeted workers for putting on another great show.

Curley was also a fan of sending members of his staff door to door in thoroughly Catholic areas of Boston pretending to be fanatical fringe Baptists drumming up support for an opponent. Then there was the banker that gave Curley loans in response to repeated threats that a water main might mysteriously burst open right underneath his bank. Spreading the rumor that a rival was divorcing his wife to marry a sixteen-year-old girl was nothing to James Michael Curley. Routine stuff. Good clean fun. The political "process."

Ironically, as Mayor, Curley was greatly concerned about "public morals." Playwrights were censored and selected works of H.G. Wells, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson were “banned in Boston.” The barelegged ballet dancing of Ruth St. Denis, Anna Pavlova and Isadore Duncan was not welcomed either.

When Curley was in office, his personal funds seemed unlimited. He could build a sixty thousand dollar house on a fifteen thousand dollar lot while pulling in a puny salary of ten thousand dollars. The typical Curley administration emptied the city treasury and borrowed millions of dollars for “public works.” To make up the difference, taxes were doubled, tripled and quintupled.

As he approached his seventies, Curley found a way to get convicted of – and pardoned for - still yet another federal crime. James G. Fuller approached him in 1941 just after he had founded Engineer’s Group, Inc. Fuller was looking for a big name to show off at the top of the company’s letterhead and assist in promotional letters. He assured Curley other reputable individuals would soon be officially connected with the company and asked him if he would serve as President. Engineer’s Group, Inc. was soon the subject of a Congressional investigation. Fuller fled to Mexico and Curley spent several hours testifying then resigned from the Democratic National Committee. When a federal grand jury was empaneled, Curley began to seek the aid of Franklin Roosevelt. But the President refused to meet with his fellow party member. In September, 1943, Curley was named in a twenty-one-count indictment for using the mails to defraud.

Curley crafted a statement for the press that called the indictment a “political move” and announced that he was being “persecuted.” He also noted that he had generally pursued an “independent course” in the world of politics and would not let “threats” or “pressure of any character” deter him from doing what was “best” for “the American people.” As his term in Congress neared its end, Curley ran another successful mayoral campaign and appeared before Judge James M. Proctor. The jury deliberated more than twenty hours before finding him guilty of ten of fourteen counts.

The Seventy-two year old "Mayor with a Heart" was looking at a possible sentence of forty-seven years and a fine of up to $10,000. Amazingly, he was given a mere six to eighteen-months and fined only $1,000. Curley immediately announced that he would not resign from Congress or give up his position as the newly elected mayor. He would continue to serve “the people” through the appellate process. Judge Proctor’s decision was affirmed by a divided Court of Appeals in January, 1947, and the case was denied further consideration by seven to one vote in the United States Supreme Court the following June. Curley and asked the Court for a rehearing but the request was denied two weeks later.

As Curley’s final appearance before Judge Proctor approached, he took to his sick bed and asked for the last rites. His lawyers rolled him into the courtroom in a wheel chair and argued a prison sentence of any length would be tantamount to a “death sentence.” They emphasized Curley had received the last rites, was struggling with a weak heart and was still recovering from the effects of complex stomach surgery. In fact, the lawyers produced an imposing list of nine officially diagnosed ailments that might render their client dead in no time.  Judger Proctor recommended that appeals for clemency be made directly to the President, then retained the original sentence of six to eighteen months.

Curley asked for permission to address the court, but Proctor would not allow it. Life magazine pictured Curley surrounded by friends and family members and noted that he had “croaked” to the judge, “You have sentenced me to die,” as they rolled him away. Time magazine reported that Curley was also heard to mutter, “There should be some less punishment than that.” There was perhaps no greater tribute to Curley’s popularity and magnificent survivability than Life’s apologetic and timid speculation that, at last, he “might” be through. Curley left the court thoroughly convinced that President Franklin Roosevelt was responsible for “framing” him.

Curley entered prison on June 26, 1947. At the door, he popped out of his wheel chair and quipped, “I don’t need that.” As for the heart and stomach problems, and the nine messengers of death that were supposed to transform his jail sentence to a curtain call, Curley would only say, “They think I’m pretty sick but I’ll show them.” President Truman commuted Curley’s sentence, however, after only five months (one month before the minimum). Curley’s autobiography notes Senator J. Howard McGrath (Rhode Island), Robert Hannegan (Post Master General) and John McCormack (Democratic House Whip) “urged” President Truman to pardon him. Curley’s daughter and son also collected “hundreds of letters from distinguished persons” who (according to Curley) knew he had been “victimized.” In addition, a petition was circulated and signed by “many high ranking clergymen and every political figure of any consequence in Massachusetts.” Senator John Kennedy was a “glaring exception,” but few were surprised. John F. Fitzgerald was Kennedy’s maternal grandfather.

Upon his release, Curley told prison officials that he felt better than he had in ten years “physically, spiritually and mentally.” Everyone agreed, as he returned to City Hall, plopped himself down at the Mayor’s desk and resumed business. At the end of the day, Curley told reporters that he had “accomplished more in six hours” than had been accomplished there “in the past five months.” Curley’s temporary replacement, John B. Hynes, appreciated the assessment so little he declared himself a candidate for the position. Curley’s response to the reaction was typical although it came in the form of a luncheon toast, “He can have my job any time – whenever I quit.”

President Truman gave Curley a full pardon in 1950. Five years later, Truman told a dinner audience that he had pardoned his “good friend” because he was “innocent.”

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