Saturday, January 15, 2011

I'd Do It Again!

Our book today is the greatest American political memoir ever written, by the greatest American politician who ever lived: of course I refer to James Michael Curley and his 1957 memoir I'd Do It Again.

Curley will be more of a myth than a reality to most 21st century Americans, and there's just a faint possibility that he would have liked that state of affairs. He was born 1874 in Roxbury to a poor family of Irish immigrants, and through dint of his oratorical skills and his predilection for high-purposed violence, he embarked on a political career like Boston had never seen and would never see again. He was four times mayor of Boston, he was governor of Massachusetts, he was a representative in Congress, and he was immensely popular with the people of Boston despite the fact that he never saw a kickback or pile of sluch-money he didn't like and was under one federal indictment or another for most of his adult life.

When that life - what he called 'tumultuous years' - was almost over, he was convinced in 1957 to write an account of it, in large part because the previous year Edwin O'Connor had won fame and fortune with his novel The Last Hurrah, which was as clearly based on Curley's life and career as it could be without actually owing the man royalties. I'd Do It Again became a regional and then something of a national bestseller, and although its sales numbers never approached those of The Last Hurrah, it's every bit as entertaining a book - maybe a bit more so, in fact, since Frank Skeffington, the hero of O'Connor's book, is a frail old man, whereas the frail old man Curley wrote a book that's blazingly, wondrously young in its every page and paragraph. If The Last Hurrah is one of the most eloquent, funny, tender eulogies ever written, I'd Do It Again is an Irish pub-song sung so boisterously it makes the Dropkick Murphys sound like Donnie and Marie.

When Curley writes of fighting in the 1890s to get his name printed at the top of the ballot for office ("since many illiterate voters were apt to put a cross beside the first name they saw"), he's not using euphemism - he and his "score of brawny friends" barricaded the entrance to the filing office on Milk Street and fought off assaults from rival candidates (and their own brawny friends) all through the night to make sure Curley's name topped the ballot. At the end of every such anecdote, Curley always offers a Catholic school nod toward the advance of civilization: "Years later the law was changed, and ballot position was determined by lot" - but he makes it clear he wouldn't change his raucous past for all the tea in China.

There are a thousand stories in I'd Do It Again, and every one of them is a winner. Curley is always the hero, but there's almost always a twinkle of self-mockery in these tales, as when he recounts leaving his heavy fur coat in the car while he gave a speech in front of St. Augustine's Church on Dorchester Street in South Boston:
'It is therefore fitting that one of the closing rallies of this campaign be held here in the shadow of this sacred edifice dedicated to the greatest religion the world has ever known. This entire campaign, in fact, reminds me of that passage in The Lord's Prayer which reads:  "Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us ...'"

As I intoned these words, I saw a bum lifting my coat out of the open car. Lowering my voice, I turned to one of my lieutenants and said, "Get that son-of-a-bitch who's trying to run off with my coat." I then continued with the concluding passage of the inspiring prayer, saying, "'and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.'"

The coat was recovered, and the culprit got the bum's rush.

A who's-who of the great political figures of the early 20th century parades through these pages, including President Taft (who was once so entranced by the Curley oratory that he turned down lunch to keep listening - surely one of the least believable of all Curley's whoppers) and President Franklin Roosevelt, who's always something of a comic book adversary for our hero (in 1957, unlike today, it was still permissible for a politician to dislike FDR in his memoirs), including the time FDR tried to give him quite literally the worst job in the world: US ambassador to Poland - in 1933. Curley turns him down, despite the fact that he was "devoted to the fine people of Poland - particularly to those Polish people in Massachusetts who had always so intelligently voted for Curley ..."

The big, sad point of The Last Hurrah is that Frank Skeffington's brand of politics was disappearing forever. I'd Do It Again is not so sentimental on the subject - Curley fought his battles cheerfully (and bore up resolutely under more tragedy in his personal life than any three or four people usually have), and he wrote a cheerful book about them. It's for later historians to wrangle the question of whether or not Curley's style of government-by-graft was more of an evil than a good in American political history. But I'd Do It Again certainly gives the impression that it was a simpler style - more direct, more personal, and perhaps ultimately more conscientious just for those reasons.

Curley could have written a very different book - a darker, angrier one - but if he had, some of that simplicity would have been lost. As it is, say what you want about the man, his memoir makes it possible to believe what one Boston newspaper man wrote about him all those long decades ago: "He never forgot a promise, and he always helped the poor and unfortunate."

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