Down here in Dallas, we have a county commissioner named John Wiley Price. Even if you don’t live in Texas, you might have heard about him. A few years ago, Price stormed out of a commissioners meeting while shouting, “All of you are white! Go the Hell!” It was a popular YouTube video for a while and attracted all of the usual type of comments that you see online. It even made the national news.
Nobody down here in Dallas was surprised by Price’s outburst. To us, that was just John Wiley being John Wiley. For that matter, nobody was particularly surprised when it was reported that he was being investigated by the FBI. Everyone always took it for granted that John Wiley Price was taking bribes and receiving kickbacks. That’s just the way that things are done down here in Dallas, by politicians both white and black. (Of course, most of the white politicians who do it don’t get publicly investigated by the FBI.)
Now, if you ask the majority of people in Dallas county what they think about John Wiley Price and they’ll probably say something negative. I’ll admit that I would probably be among them. But the thing is — John Wiley Price’s constituents love him. John Wiley Price was first elected to the commissioner’s court before I was even born and, as long as he’s on the ballot, he will be reelected. Even if Price is convicted on corruption charges, he will still be reelected.
I can still remember the night that it was announced that John Wiley Price was on the verge of being arrested by the FBI. All across his district, emergency meetings were held in churches and ministers stood behind the pulpit and, while the TV cameras rolled, they called upon everyone to pray for John Wiley Price. In Price’s district, he’s known as “our man downtown,” the idea being that John Wiley Price is standing up to the rich and white Dallas establishment and, if he makes some money for himself in the process, so be it. As long as he’s doing right for the people who elected him, who cares how he does it?
And, as much as we may want to judge the John Wiley Prices of the world, the fact that of the matter is that he’s a part of a long American political tradition. That political tradition is also the driving force behind today’s final entry in Shattered Politics.
First released in 1958 and directed by John Ford, The Last Hurrah tells the story of Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy), the mayor of an unnamed city in New England that’s obviously meant to be Boston. Skeffington is the flamboyant head of a large and powerful (but, as the film makes clear, aging) Irish-American political machine. He’s preparing to run for his fifth term for mayor, a campaign that he says will be his last.
Whether Frank Skeffington is a good mayor or not depends on who you ask. The poor and the disenfranchised love him. Skeffington, after all, is the son of Irish immigrants. He was born poor. His mother worked as a maid and was even fired by a member of the wealthy and influential Force family. They know that Skeffington has had to cut corners and that he’s gone out of his way to reward his cronies but they also know that Skeffington is on their side. Though the phrase is never used in the film, Skeffington is “their man downtown.”
Meanwhile, the wealthy and the upper class see Frank Skeffington as being a crook, a man who has run a corrupt administration and who uses class warfare to keep the city divided against itself and to make himself and his cronies rich. Newspaper editor Amos Force (John Carradine) has thrown his considerable influence between Skeffington’s opponent, a wealthy but dull man named Kevin McCluskey.
Reporter Adam Caulfield (Jeffrey Hunter) is in an interesting position. On the one hand, he is Skeffington’s nephew. On the other hand, as a journalist, he works for Amos Force. Skeffington invites Adam to follow and record his final campaign for posterity.
It’s interesting to compare The Last Hurrah to films like The Boss or All The King’s Men. Whereas those two films came down squarely on the sides of the reformers, The Last Hurrah is firmly on the side of Frank Skeffington. It presents Skeffington as being a sentimental figure, the type of old-fashioned, populist politician who won office by going out and meeting the people face-to-face and personally giving them a reason to vote for him. As Skeffington himself points out, he’s the type of politician that will soon be made obsolete by television and modern campaigning.
And it’s impossible not to enjoy The Last Hurrah‘s refusal to pass judgment on its lead character. It helps, of course, that Spencer Tracy plays Skeffington with a twinkle in his eye while all of his opponents are played by villainous and aristocratic character actors like John Carradine and Basil Rathbone. Yes, the film says, Skeffington may have been corrupt but at least he wasn’t boring!
Finally, I enjoyed the film because all of the “good” guys were Irish Catholic and all of the bad guys most definitely were not.
So, with that last hurrah, we conclude Shattered Politics for today. We’ll be back tomorrow, when we’ll start to get into the 1960s.