Read on for my report on the Boston mayoral campaign – the election of 1925 that is. In actuality I am not reporting but borrowing from the work of my best friend the author Pat Halley. He is near completion of his book Daniel Coakley: America’s Most Corrupt Politician. What Coakley lacked in honesty he made up in hubris: he was a candidate for mayor of Boston in 1925 despite having been disbarred due to one of his serial episodes of corruption. The 1925 race featured rallies that drew thousands, rhetorical excess, unregulated money, and a non-endorsement endorsement (though not of Coakley) by outgoing Mayor James Michael Curley.
Pat isn’t exaggerating in calling Coakley America’s most corrupt politician and his total absence of integrity was well known in 1925. Despite spending most of his Massachusetts time in Buzzards Bay and a good deal of additional time in Florida, Coakley began his campaign before a packed house of over 4,000 spilling out of a hall in Brighton. Always a temperate soul on controversial issues of race and ethnicity, Coakley assured the raucous Irish Catholic crowd that “No Anglo-Saxon Irish need apply to city hall for anything while I am Mayor. They won’t get it.”
Meanwhile Mayor Curley had endorsed the hapless Teddy Glynn. Curley’s motives were not public spirited; he knew Glynn could not win the office and thus Curley could return to it after he sat out one cycle for term limits. Curley’s endorsement speech was so damning that no one could doubt Glynn’s incapacity for the job.
A Coakley rally would feature fireworks, warm-up speakers, and a marching band. Radio was in its infancy and for a diversion from their poverty the Irish of the time depended upon entertainment from their political figures. No Irish pol worth his salt would disappoint them. Charges, countercharges, personal attacks, theatricality, and wild conspiracies ruled the campaign trail. Despite his capacity to match any rival in the political dark arts, Coakley was defeated.
How do those days contrast to the campaigns we see today? I leave it to Pat:
Then: the candidates staged their own events, and chose what they would talk about. Nightly crowds in the thousands attended their rallies in neighborhoods across the city. The newspapers covered them like they now cover the Red Sox – with detail, verbatim quotes, and analysis. The candidates understood that the important distinction was between themselves as identifiable political entities so they highlighted those distinctions, through policy statements and often colorful political full frontal attacks, making for good reading, exciting the electorate, and giving the voters the opportunity to identify with (or against) a particular candidate.
Now: The candidates go to forums organized by special interest groups. Topics of discussion, and the time to discuss, are strictly limited. A “crowd” of 100 people is considered big. Candidates go out of their way to be nice to one another, resulting in an indistinguishable babble. The media, if they cover it at all, say that most candidates favor fill in the blank: better transportation, more housing, a greener environment, or whatever. Voters have no possible means of sorting the wheat from the chaff, of telling the contenders from the pretenders. So the amount of money the candidates have, or the number of TV ads they buy get analyzed instead of their positions.
Parades, fireworks, and a marching band, anyone?