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The Political Machine Ii: A Case History “i Am The Law”
June 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 4
Then there was the ritual of January i. No matter how hung-over he may have been by year-end whoopee, every faithful job holder dragged his bones into the cold to stand in an immense line, which wound around City Hall three or four times, inching slowly forward into the lobby and up the steps to the Mayor’s office. There the Mayor and the commissioners, in morning coats and striped pants, received handshakes and earnest good wishes for the coming year. A man who failed to appear was practically saying that he was no longer interested in promotions or favors. He was all but declaring his intention to leave the city.
Even while Hague thus assumed almost total power inside Hudson County, he revealed a weakness that was to embarrass him and his followers again and again in the next two decades of his reign. He was singularly unable to grasp the psychology of the average voter outside the county.
This defect plus an almost insane arrogance bred by an excess of power might explain why he had Governor Moore appoint thirty-two-year-old Frank Hague, Jr., a likeable playboy who had failed to get thrqugh two law schools (yet had miraculously passed the New Jersey bar exam on his first try) to the Court of Errors and Appeals, New Jersey’s highest judicial body. Bar associations fulminated, newspapers across the country decried, but Governor Moore only replied: “I know this appointment will make his Dad happy.”
On the level of national politics, Hague was even more obtuse. In 1932 he blundered to the brink of disaster by backing Alfred E. Smith against Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency. But there was an explanation for this mistake: sentiment. Hague had been an advocate of the Happy Warrior since 1924, and the grateful Smith had helped make Hague vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Nothing stirred Hague more deeply than the Irish clan spirit. Loyalty was one of the few words in the English language that made him choke up. Like the Tammany sachems across the river in New York, he refused to face the facts of the 1928 disaster—Al Smith was simply not presidential timber.
On June 24, 1932, Hague issued a blast against Roosevelt, declaring he could not “carry a single state east of the Mississippi and very few in the Far West. …” Since Roosevelt was governor of New York, this exaggeration struck more than a few politicians as ludicrous.
At the convention, Hague was the floor leader of the Smith forces and at an early stage in the struggle exuberantly declared, “We’ve got them licked.” But no southern politician could be induced to try Smith a second time, and among northern Democrats Hague found himself totally out-generalled by a younger, smarter Irishman, James A. Parley of New York.
As Parley said of F. D. R.’s convention victory, “Everyone knew we had just nominated the next President of the United States.” No one knew this better than Hague. Even before Al Smith made his peace with Roosevelt at the New York state Democratic convention, Hague had persuaded Parley to bring Roosevelt to Sea Girt, New Jersey, on August 27 with a promise that Hague “would provide the largest political rally ever held in the United States.” Commandeering most of the rolling stock of the Jersey Central, plus squadrons of buses and cars, Hague assembled a total of 150,000 faithful. In the little resort town, sixty miles from Jersey City, they swarmed around the summer home of New Jersey’s governor and cheered their lungs out for Roosevelt when he appeared on the platform to congratulate “my friend, Mayor Hague,” for this overwhelming demonstration of Democratic muscle.
Fighting for his niche in the Democratic party, Hague slammed his Hudson County political dynamo to full throttle and produced an astonishing 184,000 votes for Roosevelt on Election Day. The performance swung New Jersey into the Democratic column, 806,000 to 775,000. The victory consolidated Hague’s power in the county and the state on a hitherto unparalleled scale. Although Roosevelt piously declined to deal with Tammany Hall, all the federal patronage for New Jersey passed through Hague’s City Hall. Some $47,000,000 in W.P.A. funds alone poured into Jersey City, enabling Hague to complete his medical center on a scale so large that the hospital’s staff frequently outnumbered the patients.
The argument, fondly repeated by many students of American politics, that the New Deal and its welfare philosophy ruined the old-style political machines simply does not apply to Hague. Roosevelt stuck with him, even when the Mayor fought a tremendous war with the C.I.O. and the nation’s liberal establishment in the late 1930’$. Hague tried to bar the aggressively independent C.I.O. from his Hudson bailiwick, using the canard that the unionists were “Reds.” Norman Thomas, Morris Ernst, and other liberals rushed into the fray. Although at one point a Jersey City police captain told a C.I.O. worker, “We’re enforcing a Jersey City ordinance, not the Constitution,” the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that the C.I.O. had the right to distribute literature and give speeches inside Jersey City. In the course of the struggle, the liberals were outraged to discover that Hague’s post-office spies were opening their mail. They howled for Hague’s scalp, but once more F.D.R. stood by the Mayor. “We had a hell of a time getting Hague out of that one,” a Cabinet-level official of the Roosevelt administration told me.