Political Rhetoric, James Michael Curley Edition

Professor Duquette and I have been critical of Senator Scott Brown, Elizabeth Warren, and their backers crying “hypocrite” at each other.  But my real problem with the accusation is it is just so awfully boring. So for some real taunts to get under an opponent’s skin let’s turn to James Michael Curley.*

In his first run for the mayoralty in 1914 Curley called the powerful Democratic City Committee a group of “empty eggshells” and labeled the ward bosses a “collection of chowderheads.” He termed the leading citizens of the Good Government Association “Goo Goos” and business leaders the “State Street wrecking crew.” To Curley the refined Brahmin aristocracy was “clubs of female faddists, old gentlemen with disordered livers, or pessimists croaking over imaginary good old days and ignoring the sunlit present.”

When the incumbent Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald reversed himself and decided to run for re-election, Curley was ready. The challenger knew that Honey Fitz was enjoying the charms of a woman not his wife, the young and lovely “Toodles” Ryan. Did Curley assign the scandal to his press secretary for a discrete leak to a favored news reporter? No, no. He announced that he would deliver a series of lectures including “Great Lovers, from Cleopatra to Toodles.” Fitzgerald dropped out of the race, clearing the path for the election of Curley.

The day after he was sworn in the self-identified “mayor of the people” enraged his Yankee detractors by proposing to sell their beloved Public Garden and employ the funds to buy new public gardens in neighborhoods “more easily accessible to the general public.”

Curley would not be hemmed in by the city’s establishment. He declared that “The day of the Puritan has passed; the Anglo-Saxon is a joke; a new and better America is here.” What Boston needs is “men and mothers of men, not gabbing spinsters and dog-raising matrons in federation assembled.”

Curley was defeated for re-election but he came roaring back in 1922. Ward boss Martin Lomasney put up John R. Murphy, who was endorsed by the Goo Goos. Curley derided Murphy as “an old mustard plaster that has been stuck on the back of the people for fifty years” and was returned to office.

In 1929 Curley ran for a third term against Irish Catholic attorney Frederick Mansfield. To Curley, Mansfield was “as spectacular as a four-day-old codfish and as colorful as a lump of mud.” Curley won again.

James Michael Curley didn’t have an army of communications specialists and consultants, and he topped out at a high school education. But he was a proud attendee of the Staley School, later the Staley College of the Spoken Word. And you have to admit, “clubs of female faddists, [and] old gentlemen with disordered livers” beats “hypocrite” as a political gibe any day.

*Quotations are from Thomas H. O’Connor, The Boston Irish. On Curley and the Staley School, see Jack Beatty, The Rascal King.

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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7 Responses to Political Rhetoric, James Michael Curley Edition

  1. In Grad School, I once nearly got into a fist fight with a Louisiana Marxist when I asserted that James Michael Curley was “ten times the demagogue than was Huey Long”. Today’s post merely buttresses my original assertion.


    • Maurice T. Cunningham says:

      I like it better than the daily outrage of today’s partisans though. How about this one from my friend William M. Bulger’s James Michael Curley: A Short Biography: “I, James Michael Curley, will take the useless Gold Dome from the top of the State House, and turn it upside down, and place it in the middle of Andrew Square in South Boston and let the little children use it as a swimming pool. Curley makes no rash promises! So when you go to the polls on Tuesday next—vote early, vote often, vote Curley!”

      He couldn’t get it into 140 characters I suppose, but what fun.

  2. They had rhetoric in those days, not soundbytes, and audiences had a bit more patience as well.


  3. Carolyn Gritter says:

    Professor Warren couldn’t call Senator Brown “beefcake Brown” or “bobble head Brown” (after the bobble head dolls in his likeness given out at the Lowell Spinners game after he was elected), now could she? How about “Wall Street bought and paid for Brown?” That would be speaking truth to his “regular guy” hypocrisy.

  4. HOWARD MC GOWAN says:

    In the Wards the question was how many times did Mrs on Mr vote for Curley today.
    My big complaint against Curley is that he filled the Swimming pool at Brighton High with soft coal when we had a oil shortage!!

  5. Pingback: Thomas H. O’Connor, 1922-2012 | MassPoliticsProfs

  6. Tom Patterson says:

    Huey Long exceeded the rhetoric examples of Curley that are quoted. One opponent was called “whistle britches” because of a tendency to flatulence. But I like Curley’s quit wit on the stump. When a heckler taunted him, asking “Why is your nose
    so red!” Curley replied that it was glowing with pride because he kept it out of other people’s business. When an angry member of a crowd threw a cabbage at him, he coolly picked it up and said, “One of my opponents seems to have lost his head.”

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