When The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor was published in 1956, New York Times book critic Orville Prescott effused that it was the best novel about American politics and Irish-Americans that he had ever read. Prescott was not completely on the mark. All The King’s Men surpasses The Last Hurrah as a study of American politics. The Last Hurrah, nonetheless, is filled with invaluable insight about democracy and the Irish-American experience. It’s gotten a second chance and was reprinted just this year by the University of Chicago Press.
The Last Hurrah traces the final mayoral campaign of Frank Skeffington, an urban boss in an unidentified New England city modeled upon Boston. The leading citizens and corporate interests abhor Skeffington. The common folks adore him. In the Irish-American community, Skeffington is both political leader and “tribal chieftain.” Like all urban bosses, he’s built a machine that runs upon quid pro quos. The bosses found jobs for their constituents, dispensed cash to widows and orphans, and interceded in the everyday problems confronted by the new Americans. The unspoken reward was votes. Skeffington follows in that tradition. A line stretches in front of his home each morning, and he patiently gives money and advice to his applicants. The cash is from kickbacks and graft. We’re told that Skeffington himself is not avaricious; the money goes right back to the people. Skeffington’s machine is all-service; it plans wakes just as readily as it gives rides to the polls. One of the key scenes in The Last Hurrah occurs at the wake of Knocko Minnihan, and it shows the gears of the machine in motion. The machine merges politics and religious ritual. Skeffington uses the wake to network and strategize with his ward leaders, but his presence assures that the widow receives a large crowd to honor her husband. Skeffington has arranged for the food, pressures public employees to attend, and hands the widow a bounty of $1000 to help her get by.
Skeffington is a larger than life character, whose dry humor makes him loveable despite the behind the scenes corruption and sometimes ruthless suppression of rivals. He’s described as “a superb practical psychologist with the instincts of a pirate.” With respect to one enemy, Skeffington explains that he’s quit his membership in the Ku Klux Klan “because he found out that he was expected to buy his own sheet.” As for his latest opponent, Kevin McCluskey, Skeffington calls him a “six-foot hunk of talking putty,” a “puppet fallen among thieves.”
O’Connor contrasts Skeffington with the new breed of politician exemplified by the bland, undistinguished McCluskey. The Cardinal describes McCluskey as “a mealy-mouthed maneuverable piece of dough.” McCluskey may have clean hands but he’s a cipher manipulated by corporate interests. These include the banker, Norman Cass, who prides himself for generations of financial exploitation of the Irish newcomers whom he regards as “vermin.” They also include the skinflint newspaper publisher Amos Force. Force is a descendent of the man who fired Skeffington’s mother as a house maid for stealing a banana. Force abuses his employees. He lets shoddy tenements to the Irish poor, “eschewing the use of paint and modern conveniences.” While Skeffington continues to campaign door-to-door with occasional radio and television appearances, McClusky addresses the public exclusively in television set pieces featuring his family. These television events are staged. Even the family dog has been rented because it’s more photogenic than the actual family dog.
O’Connor mourns the loss of politicians who transcended their titles, big men who knew individual voters by name, and who met the needs of the faithful. The future belongs to the McCluskeys, and O’Connor foresees anonymity, mediocrity, and a new sort of corruption and phoniness. O’Connor even offers a one-word explanation for the demise of the urban machine: Roosevelt. With social security and unemployment, Roosevelt created a safety net making the favors dispensed by urban machines superfluous. FDR also fostered an environment hospitable to unions, which brought with them medical benefits, vacations, and pensions. At the same time, avenues began to open to third generation Irish-Americans other than government and blue-collar jobs. As Skeffington states, it used to be that politics “was the quickest way out of the cellar” for immigrants. That’s changed. The new generation went away to school, joined the army, earned veterans’ benefits and owes nothing to Skeffington.
Former Boston Mayor James Curley insisted that he was the model for Skeffington. Curley first thought to sue O’Connor until he realized how appealing Skeffington was to readers and embraced the book’s popularity. He particularly commended the “part where I die.” When The Last Hurrah was turned into a movie, with a spectacular performance by Spencer Tracy as Skeffington, Curley found yet another opportunity to cash in. Claiming invasion of privacy, Curley squeezed $46,000 from the studio.