They may have been corrupt, cigar-chomping crooks and even -- as one new book calls them -- “dictators.” But they also knew how to cut deals and compromise and, you know, keep the government functioning.
Who would have guessed we would get to the point where we would look back at notorious Irish American political machines for lessons about good government? Or at least working government.
“One thing about the political machines of the early 20th century — they were run by pragmatic politicians who understood the importance of consensus,” notes Irish American author Terry Golway, whose new book Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of American Politics, will be published in March by W.W. Norton.
“Yes, they rammed through legislation on occasion. In fact, famed Republican boss Tom Platt rammed through the consolidation of Greater New York City in the 1890s when the GOP was riding high in the state. But they would never have shut down the government to achieve a legislative or ideological goal.”
Of course, there’s lots of blame to go around for the stalemate in Washington. Democrats were handed this gift by loony-bin Republicans, yet they keep allowing themselves to get dragged into this debate as if there were...well, something to actually debate.
Last I heard, the time for debate over Obamacare was, you know, before the bill actually passed through Congress and was signed by the president.
These right wing types revere the Constitution, yet they are apparently anxious to fiddle with that document by allotting time to debate a bill after its passage as well as before.
Either way, conservatives seem downright gleeful because they consider the federal government pointless -- at least when it’s not funneling money to military bases in their districts.
Of course, I wouldn’t dare mention food stamps. Republicans, apparently, never go hungry. (Even though, as The Atlantic recently noted, “When most House Republicans talk about cutting food stamps, they’re saying that they’re okay with the idea that at least one out of every 10 households in their district will have a tougher time putting food on the table, and will have less money to spend on local businesses.”)
Anyway, what we are missing, at this point, are solutions. That’s where Irish American machine politicians come in.
For all of their flaws, today’s Washington politicians could learn a thing of two from these Hibernian denizens of smoke-filled backrooms.
Steven Hart, a New Jersey-based author, has just released a new book called American Dictators: Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine (Rivergate).
Johnson is the basis for Steve Buscemi’s character on Boardwalk Empire. Hague, meanwhile, was born in Jersey City in 1876.
He was one of eight children born to immigrants from Cavan. This put the Hagues in the minority, since their section of Jersey City’s Second Ward was often referred to as “Cork Row.”
Hague served an astonishing 30 years as Jersey City mayor and was a powerhouse in regional as well as national Democratic circles. He was also not shy about wielding his power. He was known for proclaiming “I am the law.”
You may not have liked what Hague got done. You may not have liked how Hague got things done. But he did get things done.
“One of Frank Hague’s most striking qualities as a political boss was his ability to wield power and achieve his goals even though, as a Democratic Party leader, he was officially persona non grata with the Republican-dominated legislature,” Steven Hart told me this week.
“His ability to cut deals with cooperative Republicans, and even throw elections to Republican candidates he thought he could work with, was a constant source of frustration to the GOP leadership, who denounced ‘Hagueism’ as a blotch on civic life. One of the sternest critics of Hagueism was Walter Edge, who benefited from Hagueism to win his first term as governor, then denounced it to win his second.”
It may be a stretch to say the machines resided over the good old days. But at least they presided over something.