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Tammany Picked An Honest Man
The 1910 race for the mayoralty of New York looked like a tough one.
February 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 2
The Judge’s two opponents were the Republican-Fusion candidate and Hearst, who had allowed himself to be nominated by the ardent idealists and temperamental malcontents he had managed to coalesce under the alternative titles of the Independence League or the Civic Alliance. Hearst had entered the race purely out of spite, for he had been angling to get Tammany’s backing for his own free-wheeling aspirations. He proceeded to try everything that a disappointed, vindictive demagogue could to thwart Gaynor, without harboring the least illusion that he could be elected himself. Gaynor retorted with a ferocity that made the mealy-mouthed shudder. Of the adventurer from California (“who advertises himself like a patent medicine”) he said that “his face almost makes me puke,” and that Hearst was “filled up to the weasand, yes, into the goozle, with promises.” Hearst’s experts in billingsgate retaliated with their best—”pseudo-paranoiac,” “incapable of telling the truth,” “mentally cross-eyed,” and “an intellectual hypocrite.” Gaynor came back with, “I believe there are more hypocrites in this city than on the whole face of the earth outside of it,” and said of Hearst: “In no nook or cranny of his head or heart is there the slightest sense of truth or justice.” The Judge was said to have been one of the few political antagonists who ever got under Hearst’s hide. From that he derived no personal satisfaction, although a host of Hearst’s ill-wishers did.
How the Judge could ever win a popular election surpassed the imagining of most people. Snarled the Sun, impressed in spite of itself, “We doubt if even Gaynor ever realized, until just recently, how bad a man he could be, once he let himself go.” He made no effort to ingratiate, refused either to flatter or talk down to an audience, and remained aggressively a scholar and a gentleman when he was not exchanging scurrilities with someone. Hod carriers he treated to liberal doses of Epictetus and Lecky. He declined to limit his exercise of the right of free speech by anything short of the laws of libel, upon which he was an authority. If it was possible to affront, he chose the most effective time and place to do it. A meeting of Queens County voters he hailed as “Ye Long Island clam diggers!” Appearing before the convention of the New York State Federation of Women’s Clubs, many of whose members were ardent suffragists, he chided the delegates: “You people of these clubs think you are the whole of womankind, but you are not. I can see that some of you want to vote. We generally aspire to the thing we are least fitted for.” Speaking before the Advertising Men’s League, he applied Shakespeare to their occupation: “Oh, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!” Unwilling to beg a favor from anybody, he almost defied people to vote for him— and in November he was elected by a margin of 73,000, although the entire rest of the Tammany ticket was defeated. On January 1, 1910, he took office as the most unconventional, picturesque, articulate, and controversial mayor New York City had ever had the good fortune to acquire.
On the day of his inauguration, Gaynor told a friend: “For thirty years I have been thinking what I would do with this office. Now I am going to do it.” A yearning “to do things for the people,” he said, “had burned in my head like a live coal.” A few observers had sensed this consuming ambition to defend the “common man” against the depredations of a political plunderbund, and to it they ascribed the strange appeal Gaynor seemed to have for the average voiceless citizen—the decent, much abused, briefly flattered and quickly forgotten average man or woman, who nevertheless had the wit to distinguish between a political charlatan and a friend.
With a sweep like ten new brooms, Mayor Gaynor started an epic housecleaning. On inaugural day, while his office was buzzing with the chatter of hangers-on gloating over prospective spoils, a Tammany sycophant sidled up to the new mayor and inquired with a smirk, “And what can we do for Mr. Murphy?” Gaynor considered a moment, then replied sweetly, “I think we can give Mr. Murphy a few kind words.” And a few kind words was all that Murphy and his crew received for four long, dreary, hungry years. In the annals of Tammany, Gaynor’s ingratitude ranked among the great natural disasters, an affliction which the smitten could only contemplate with stunned incomprehension.