Actuarially, Ted was on the young side, only seventy-seven when he died. But considering his brothers’ fates . . . . Given the eulogies and encomiums related to forty-seven years of service in the U.S. Senate there is much that can be accounted to his debt of atonement for that awful lapse of judgment at Chappaquiddick. It is that account—and the Kennedy mystique, of course—that explain the lying in state, the expansive news coverage, the sense of history, that surrounds his passing.
I do not mean to repeat all that, which is better said by others. But something did pop out of it, out of Ted Kennedy the consummate politician, the man who had many friends among the opposition, who influenced so much legislation and public policy. It was that Kennedy who made himself into the almost classic Boston-Irish politician, who consorted with political pals like Tip O’Neill and Pat Moniyhan, other members of the old breed of which he might well be the last. It comes out now, that this great silver lion of the Senate was the type of guy who would get a kid a baseball signed by the Red Sox, or ask parents of a soldier killed in Iraq if he could come to the funeral, who would take the time to get a phone call through to Nancy Reagan who was celebrating her birthday on a yacht at sea.
Each time I hear one of these anecdotes my mind would flash back to Spencer Tracy, and to a movie about the waning years of the old political machine. A central, if somewhat didactic, theme of the movie is built around a funeral. Kenndy’s career was in national, not local, politics, but he obviously saw the connections in bioth political and social terms
Urban politics has not been a very large genre in the movies. The subject of how cities are governed often requires some additional help from crime and corruption in order to hold the attention of movie audiences. So despite the fact that city politics pervades our lives in so many ways there are relatively few films that employ it as a central cinematic theme.*
One film that does, however, is The Last Hurrah (1958) featuring Spencer Tracy as Irish mayor Frank Skeffington. The mayor is loosely based on real mayor James Curley, in an unnamed New England city that very much resembles Boston. Skeffington is an old-style political boss running a campaign in the old style of “grassroots politics” on the eve of the emergence of television in politics. “Grassroots” is represented in this film in the close contact that the mayor has with his various constituencies. Skeffington holds “court” each day with his ward “heelers” before, like a seigneur in some medieval town, giving audience to a line of supplicants and petitioners outside his home, and visits funerals and other social functions.
Contemporary viewers might find The Last Hurrah a pastiche of stereotypes and political clichés. “Yes men” are overly solicitous, ethnic stereotypes cast in a bit too much relief, and class-distinctions seem a bit too distinct. But then, this is a film, based on Edwin O’Connor’s book of the same title, about what is now very much a bygone era.
Although reforms and declines in immigration had undone the underpinnings of political machines their vestiges remained in cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and a few others. In particular, that inductive style of politics referred to as “grassroots” politics remained appropriate to central cities with distinct ethnic districts and new immigrant populations. Skeffington’s unnamed city retains features of late 19th century social geography. His ward organizers are expected to bring him information about wards that are primarily Irish, Italian or Jewish, and importantly, to get out the vote for him at election time. These tactics are in some measure even more important that in the past, when politicians could rely upon patronage, backroom deals with city contractors, and if necessary, strongarm intimidation, to get their way.
Skeffington is given an easy charm in Tracey’s portrayal, but his roots are much in contrast to Kennedey’s. He has come up in the world from the scrappy Irish tenements, from which, we also learn, so has the Roman Catholic Cardinal and other leaders of the community. But he has been unable to achieve public office and retain it without making his share of enemies along the way. Principal among these are the old line Yankee WASPS who assemble in their private club and plot ways to overthrow the mayor. It is these enemies that provide the melodrama that drives what otherwise might be a soporific narrative. Skeffinton finds ways to frustrate the crusty vengeance of newspaper owner Amos Force (John Carradine), who years earlier abused a relative who was in service in his house for taking a piece of fruit. He outfoxes the leading banker who is holding up on bonds for a low-income housing project by enticing his dim-witted son to be fire chief, a post at which he is very likely to cause embarrassment. He attends funerals and other social events, using his charm and cleverness to endear himself to various constituencies. There is even a little lesson in the art of political compromise when, at a dinner with his nephew and his wife he explains how he managed to get a statue erected in the Italian ward where different groups there wanted to honor different Italian historical figures.
But all of this political acumen is doomed against the rising forces of the new politics. The jobs of policemen and firemen are still beholden to the mayor, there are still favors he can bestow and patronage jobs to distribute, but many of the ethnics have moved on into the middle class, suburbs now encircle the city, which increasingly is home to the poorer elements of society, and politics is being re-shaped by the medium of television. His political opponents nominate a dolt to run against him, seen almost exclusively in television and, in spite of obvious ineptness, he prevails over the old political warrior.
The undoing of the Skeffington machine is not the opposition of the old English-based elite of the city, rather the demographics of the new metropolitan area, and television. The emergence of the suburbs, in which issues were different, or competitive with those of the older parts of the city, placed limitations on the old, ethnicity-based grassroots politics. Residents of suburbia were often the children of the residents of the ethnic neighborhoods, but the ethnic mixture of the suburbs, based more upon concerns such as the quality of schools, home-ownership, and journey to work, was more diversified. Unlike the neighborhoods of the inner city, the suburbs were not predominately Irish, or Italian, or Polish, but as likely to be a mix of thee and other ethnic backgrounds.
Television became a means by which candidates could be presented more like products that personalities. They could be “packaged,” shown only in the best of “photo-op” circumstances, and engage in a non-interactive form of communication with their constituencies. While Sheffington was telegenic, he was at his best in small groups and on-on-one political relationships.
Kennedy’s last hurrah combined the old politics of the personal touch with mass communications. In the end, politics seems most successful if you can make the people believe in you by believing in them. And you demonstrate that by employing the personal touch.
The Last Hurrah is marred by an interminable death scene in which Skeffington’s heart has given out and his political deeds are re-hashed as if to determine the direction of his soul. But then, Skeffington had only a single, wastrel, of a son. His real family was his political cronies. Kennedy could not be more of a contrast; he had busloads of family. As to his great earthly sin, the public seems to have forgiven him. He already knows whether there is any forgiveness beyond that.
© 2009, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 9.1.2009)
*Although it does not deal with urban politics per se, a film that presents an interesting point of view on American politics in general is Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941), which relates a tale with a strong message about the prospects for populist political movements being exploited by fascist interests. Capra, always interested in the “common man” in the American idiom seized upon a story about a young female newspaper reporter (Barbara Stanwyck) who writes column in which she concocts a fictitious author of a letter of protest against an unjust political and social system. The “John Doe of the letter, which reads:
Dear Miss Mitchell:
Four years ago, I was fired out of my job. Since then, I haven’t been able to get another one. At first, I was sore at the state administration because it’s on account of the slimy politics here. We have all this unemployment. But in looking around, it seems the whole world is goin’ to pot. So in protest, I’m goin’ to commit suicide by jumping off the City Hall roof.
Signed, a disgusted American citizen,
The ruse creates great interest and many men come forward to claim they are the author of the letter, allowing Mitchell to choose an ex-baseball player and homeless person, John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) to impersonate John Doe. Doe preaches charity, kindness, and a doctrine of brotherly-love, and instigates the formation of “John Doe Clubs” across the country. But this is all exposed and exploited by a fascist organization run by D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) and the disgraced John Doe is thrown out by his disappointed admirers. In the end he decides that he will, in fact, carry out the threat of the John Doe letter and leap to his death from the roof of City Hall. Only common Americans, awakened from the false promises of fascism, can save him.
Meet John Doe seems like a very dated film when viewed today in the contemporary American context, but viewers might find more threads of commonality than they would expect with the circumstances of America in the 1930s and the worries about the fragile state of democracy.