Wednesday, February 7, 2007
Flashback: Its Nice of You to Keep an Old Man Company.
[More memoirs from fifty years in politics for my kids and grandchildren].
As we rode side by side in his limousine, he said with a smile looking at me with brilliant blue eyes: Its nice of you to keep an old man company.
Since I had been able to sit on the clothes hamper to read the Tribune editorials to Father at about age 8 I had read and heard about James Aloysius Farley of New York, chairman of the Democratic National Committee and FDRs patronage dispenser as postmaster general . Father had a wonderful love-hate view of the man: love for the engaging Irish Catholic spirit that kept immigrant flavor alive; hate for the anti-business view that Farley accepted without mummer to be a team-player for Roosevelt; and love once again for the courage Farley showed by breaking with his leader over the third term. If Father had been alive when I lunched with Farley and heard what he told me Father would have a few more items on each side of the love-hate divide.
Farley was truly a giant of political strategy: a man who, before the days of hireling political consultants, (a) single-handedly put together the organization that won (a) FDRs hard-fought and narrowly successful New York governorship campaign, (b) was early with the idea that this superbly endowed but severely paralyzed man should be president, (c) ran the bitterly tough chess-game 1932 Democratic convention for president which gained Roosevelt the nomination which was far from in the bag; (d) ran the landslide presidential election for FDR and (e) built the genesis of the old-line Democratic Rooseveltian coalition of opposites that made U. S. history. Now, two years after Fathers death, I was dining with Farleyand he paying the bill. There was no drinking with Farley, for lunch or ever. He was a total abstainer and not because he had had a personal encounter with drinkbut because trouble with the devils brew had run in the family and Jim was not going to take a chance on it ruining him.
Charismatic but with a courtliness, with the air of command akin to successful CEOs, tall, ruddy of cheek, scant of hair with a fringe of white lingering about the ears, he was, at 6 feet 2, extraordinarily well-dressed in bankers deep blue pinstripes with heavy gold cuff-links bearing the multi-colored emblematic seal of the president of the United States, with a rich, brocaded Kelly-green tie tied with expert Windsor knotting on a heavy white-on-white expensively stitched shirt-- so starchily white it dazzled with the texture of an immaculately pressed cathedral altar-cloth. There was a lot that was clerical, indeed heavily hierarchical, about him. The flowing green necktie had an expensive, almost subliminal sprinkling of tiny shamrocksthe tie held in place with a gold clip on which was affixed Terrence Cardinal Cookes coat of arms, and an ornate gold and ruby-dotted pin on his lapel testifying to the Knights of Malta, the Catholic order of heavy charitable donors, he was at age 80 every inch and bearing the man whom Roosevelt had so wisely picked for broad-based political leadership.
He was not the standard up-from-the-curbstones second-generation immigrant Irishman with grit remaining under the fingernails as were the Irish Democrats like Ed Kelly of Chicago or Paving Blocks Flynn of Jersey City of James Curley of Boston or my own Irish Democratic grandfather in Chicago in my youth. His parents were the children of immigrants (father Irish, mother German). The father started as a bricklayer in Grassy Point, an affluent Republican town in upstate New York but parlayed a small inheritance to part ownership of three small schooners that hauled bricks. He was killed by the kick of a horse when Farley was 10 and left a small insurance policy and his partial ownership of the schooners to Farleys mother.
Thereupon the family faced some rough years, the mother owning a small grocery and then a bar. Farley was one of five children who went to public schools. After he completed public high school, he went to a commercial business college to study bookkeeping. He took a job at the Merlin Keiholtz paper company but didnt like it. Then he moved to U.S. Gypsum which saw in him the makings of a great salesman, which he became. He was pegged for big things at U. S. Gypsum , earned what was a good deal of money in those early 20th century days but always had his heart set on Democratic politics.
He was not an aristocrat but could have played one on TV and could fool you easily had he said he went to Harvard or Yale--with excellent diction and decorous understated phrasing. You had the idea that if you told him an off-color joke he would react disappointedly, rather like an archbishop who might cough embarrassedly instead of laughing to show disapproval. Unless, of course, the joke you told was, while dirty, very-very funny. Fortunately for me the joke I told was not dirty but very-very funny (which I had heard at the business conference earlier that day). He threw back his head and laughed infectiously. I always like it when a man can laugh heartily without affectation.
While at U. S. Gypsum, Farley bought in to part-time Democratic politics, becoming elected town clerk of heavily Republican Grassy Point; from there Democratic chairman of Rockland countya GOP bastion--and moved up until he was elected secretary of the New York state Democratic committee where he left Gypsum on very good terms and took jobs as a salesman in the building materials field and then as a major partner in General Builders Supply corporation. Irish Catholic Jim Farley was drawn early to the candidacy of Alfred E. Smith, the self-educated Democrat who touted that his education came from the university of hard knocks as a counterman at the Fulton street fish market and who parlayed his common-man status to become governor of New York.
Farley worked like a demon to elect Smith, got a patronage job in return and became, at the same time, an admirer of Franklin Roosevelt, meeting him in 1920. Farley got the idea of Roosevelt, who had run for vice president with James M. Cox, losing to Harding and Coolidge by a landslide, of nominating Smith for president at the Democratic convention in 1924 when FDR was trying to recover from polio. Roosevelt tried to beg off but Farley and Louis Howe, FDRs Sancho Panza, felt that, frankly, the sight of an indomitable young man on crutches delivering an address would help Smith and do Roosevelts morale a whole lot of good. It worked. Howe, a former Albany newsman, wrote the speech and thought of the Happy Warrior themeSmith the Happy Warrior, taken from Wordsworths poem, Character of the Happy Warrior which was written after the death of Lord Horatio Nelson. Howe had a file of stuff like that catalogued for inspirational use by FDR.
My notes on our conversation start at this point.
After we got him hauled up to the rostrum, saw him throw his head back and heard that marvelous voice, I decided this fellow might be ultimately better for the Democratic party than Smith, said Farley.
Can you recite parts of the poem?
He smiled. Not in its entirety, of course but the wind-up goes like this: Who, whether praise of him must walk the earth/ for ever and to noble deeds give birth/ Or he must go to dust without his fame/And leave a dead unprofitable name/ Finds comfort in himself and his cause/ And while the mortal mist is gathering, draws/ His breath in confidence of heavens applause/ This is the Happy Warrior; this is he Whom every man in arms should wish to be.
In his day, orators could spin off poetry by heartjust as he demonstrated.
Smith didnt get the nomination but Roosevelts speech lit up the sky and he was determined to return to the fray. Smith got the presidential nomination in 1928, the year FDR decided to run for governor of New York and asked Jim Farley to manage the campaign.
Running for governor, Frank, who was six years older than I, was far from the jaunty, confident guy he later become, said Farley. At the outset, when we were scouting to see whether hed run or not, we rode together day-in and day-outme driving--and I had to give him a few morale jolts. His mother gave him a real problem. We called her The Duchess, she being from Dutchess county in upstate New York and all: a tough, iron-willed old bird who felt Frank had married a real nothing in dowdy Eleanor. She [Sarah Delano Roosevelt] believed Frank should live the life of a county squire in Hyde Park because he was a cripple. Eleanor felt that would be the worst thing that could happen to Frank, being a psychological invalid as well as a physical one. I agreed with Eleanor as was Louie Howe, a crafty old Jew with bad breath and nicotine-stained fingers who would hang around, draw a modest sinecure from the family, and serve as a kind of jester to Frank.
At first, I felt the old girl was right, seeing how terribly paralyzed Frank was with the hope that he would never, ever, get better. He wasnt so all-fired impressive as we drove along but I noticed that after you got him to some Rotary Clubs and got him up on the stage, his voice was just as magnetic as it was at the convention when he nominated Smith.
I told him that. Those were the beginning days of the meeting loudspeaker where theyd plug it in. My God, when I heard that voice the first time at the conventionand at every little Rotary club since--I knew there was something about him. He could read the Manhattan phone book and make it sound exciting with that rich-guy accent of his. He didnt want them to see him being helped up the steps to the stage but I told him the effect was powerfulhim being helped as an invalid told the audience how much he had overcome so he had them on his side. He said, `Christ, Jim, I dont want them to feel sorry for me. I said, listen, Frank: after you open up with that magnetic voice of yours nobody feels sorry for you, now shut up about it or Im going to turn this goddamn car around and drive you back to Hyde Park. What do you think Smith is doing saying he wrapped fish at the Fulton marketgetting `em to marvel at how far hes come. He never mentioned that again.
Next: the 1932 convention when Farley piloted FDR to the presidential nomination over Al Smith, Newton D. Baker John Nance Garner and Albert C. Ritchie all of whom could have been elected president in place of Roosevelt in that dark Depression year.