In “The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley,” Jack Beatty writes, “Even his core voters knew Curley was dishonest.”
It didn’t lessen their devotion to him. The legendary Boston pol served four terms as mayor and one term as governor even though he was twice convicted of crimes and served time in federal prison for mail fraud during his last term as mayor. Does blind loyalty to a charismatic, corruption-riddled master of cynical political theater sound familiar? In Boston, it should. The ghost of Curley lives on in Donald Trump, the former president who could be on the brink of indictment on charges relating to a payoff to adult film star Stormy Daniels.
As a local politician famously said, all politics is local. The parallels between Curley and Trump, which have been noted since Trump first won election, ring even truer today. While Trump has never been convicted of any crime, his potential arrest raises that possibility and with it, this question: How long will the faithful remain faithful to Trump because of some deeper, darker, political self-interest? Loyalty to Curley, after all, lasted a long time.
Curley first won a seat on what was then called the Boston Common Council in 1899 and, from there, progressed to the Board of Aldermen, the state Legislature, and Congress. He also served as mayor and governor and finally quit politics after losing one last mayoral election bid in 1954. His career inspired Edwin O’Connor’s iconic novel, “The Last Hurrah,” and his own autobiography, “I’d Do It Again.” When he died in 1958 at 83, he was hailed as a colorful rogue and “golden voiced orator,” as the Globe described him.
He was known for an array of public improvements, like recreation facilities in the city’s poorer neighborhoods and expanded transit, and the public expense that came with them. Yet controversy and allegations of criminality also shadowed Curley. His first jail term occurred in 1904 for impersonating a friend in a letter carrier civil service exam. While in office, he had a reputation for taking kickbacks. In 1915, municipal contractors built his grand, 21-room house on the Jamaicaway at no cost to Curley, who was mayor at the time. Because of the numerous ways he undercut the integrity of state government, his term as governor was considered a disaster.
In 1947, Curley spent five months in the Federal House of Correction in Danbury after being found guilty of accepting $60,000 to influence the granting of government contracts while serving in Congress. On his way to jail, Beatty notes that a Globe poll found that 62 percent of Bostonians still approved of his job performance. He was granted executive clemency by President Harry S. Truman and served only five months of an 18-month sentence. On his return to Boston from Danbury, he was met with a brass band and the cheers of supporters.
Why did Bostonians stick with Curley despite his sins? Because he stoked the politics of ethnic and religious polarization by demonizing the Boston Brahmins who ruled the city at the time and by championing the Irish immigrants who were fighting for their place in it.
As Beatty writes: “Between 1900 and 1914, Curley bred unprecedented tumult in Boston politics. He was denounced from pulpits and excoriated by editorialists. Headlines made his name synonymous with scandal. And yet without it, his political ascent would not have been possible.” Over a century ago, Curley exploited the same negative instincts as Trump: “Economic frustration and class hatred, wounded pride and ethnic resentment, thwarted hope and strangled aspiration — those were the mute causes that found their tribune in James Michael Curley,” writes Beatty.
Trump flipped the equation, demonizing the latest round of immigrants and tapping into white, working-class resentment. And of course Trump went beyond that, inciting not just resentment but insurrection by denying the 2020 presidential election results. Curley kept on running for office, but he accepted the voters’ verdict. When the end finally came, Beatty quotes Curley as saying, “There would be no hope for future generations if I went on forever. It’s got to end sometime.”
Because of his national platform and the ability to use social media to rally support, Trump is far more dangerous than James Michael Curley could ever be. But the same accountability should apply to both. In “The Rascal King,” Beatty recounts that the judge who sentenced Curley to prison wrote, “It is a paramount concern that public confidence be maintained in the fair and impartial administration of justice to all alike: to the high and the low; the rich and the poor.”
Forget about the loyalists and their devotion to a known liar. The same public confidence in the fair and impartial administration of justice that was at stake in Curley’s time is at stake today.