James Michael Curley

I’ve been reading The Rascal King by Jack Beatty. It’s a biography of James Michael Curley, the most loved/despised mayor of Boston. He was also governor, state rep, alderman, and council member. I wish someone could revive this man, or at least his type, for I find his politics, underhanded though they were, appeal to my romantic side, which, I must confess, is much more pronounced than my rational.

For Curley, politics meant cigars, smoky rooms, kickbacks, pamphleteering, pressing the flesh, etc. Curley was an orator before he was a politician. So majestic was his voice that there was a story—probably started by himself—that a wealthy lady had offered to subsidize his education provided he become an opera singer. Another lady made a similar offer, but she wanted him to become a Methodist preacher, and so forsake his Roman Catholicism. Curley’s voice was his fortune, and he realized this early on. He studied the famous orators of history—Webster, Lincoln, Pitt—and made their utterances his own.

He kept track of all the favors he did, so that when voting time came he might gently—or quite pointedly—remind the recipients of them. Curley’s favors were not small either—he got people jobs.  Of course, how he did this usually involved some dubious act on his part. There’s the famous story of Curley and his friend taking the civil service examination for two of their constituents who were hoping work in the postal office. He was discovered and went to jail for two months. Looking back on it now, his crime is endearing—indeed it doesn’t even seem a crime compared to what our politicians get away with today. Exhibit A: Charles Rangel. As much as we rail against patronage and the spoils system, the system that Curley employed is so much more human, so much more personal. Say what you will of Tameny Hall: it found work for people, which is more than the stimulus program has done.