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The Boss
THE IDEAS OF A PRACTICAL POLITICIAN

By David Dayton McKean
This Web version, edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2003

The central principle of his thinking is that what benefits the political organization is desirable and therefore right; what damages it is undesirable and therefore wrong. The end of maintaining the organization justifies any necessary means. `Politics,' he told George Creel, `is a business. That's what the reformers don't get. They think it's a sort of revival meeting, with nothing to do but nominate some bird who's never seen a polling place, make a lot of speeches about clean government, and then sit back and wait for voters to hit the sawdust trail. It's a laugh. You got to have organization, and not just for a few weeks before election, but all the year round. Understand?' (Collier's Magazine, October 10, 1936, p. 13.)

A political organization such as that in Jersey City is not so much the servant of the people as their master, no matter how much dust officials may keep in the air about the public benefits provided by the administration. In every possible way, from the buying off of group leaders with jobs to the manipulation of elections, the politicians in control indicate that they do not intend either to allow opposition to form or to become effective. The interest of the organization comes before the public interest, whether in loading a payroll with useless jobs against the interest of the taxpayers or in controlling courts against the interest of litigants. The people have tolerated these oppressions so long and so complacently that the politicians have, underneath the talk about service, a certain contempt for the electorate which is not the less real because it is seldom expressed. Mayor Hague showed a hint of it when he said to Creel: `According to reformers, the average American can hardly wait for election day so he can exercise the sovereign right that the forefathers bought with their blood. That's another laugh. A full fifty per cent of the voters have got to be coaxed or dragged to the polls.' The supine public, in other words, does not deserve more than it gets.

The organization, putting its own interest foremost, cannot afford to be tied down to any permanent platform or set of public policies. It proposes to last longer than any policy; it will favor a sales tax, then oppose it, then favor it, and finally oppose it. Mayor Hague in his speeches is always very vague about what he proposes to do if re-elected – although he will of course be re-elected regardless of what he says or does not say. He prefers, rather, to dwell upon those parts of his record that have been proved to be popular or to use some such generalization as he did in 1937, `You know Mayor Hague has served his city conscientiously and honestly.' The truth is that he does not know specifically what he will do, but he will select whatever course of action promises to benefit him and his organization.

The nature of political leadership, as he conceives it, leaves little room for the formation of policy anywhere except at the top of the organization; while the party workers keep the citizens in line by all the variety of means at the dis- posal of a well-built machine, the leader decides what is good for the people. `I think the duty of a mayor,' Frank Hague told Dean Frazer in the C.I.O. trial, `is to, from his own observation, ascertain for himself just what's beneficial to the people of the community in which he presides over.' He may listen to advice or not, but he decides; on another occasion, pointing his long forefinger at his chest, he said: `I decide. I do. Me.'

The I-am-the-law statement was widely quoted because it fitted precisely into place in the scheme of his leadership in his organization. He insisted that it was torn out of its context to be used against him; indeed, he said, `I was misquoted so frequently that I thought it would be better for me to remain silent and perform my duties as I seen it.' But in his testimony in the C.I.O. trial he gave away all pretense that the famous statement was not as broad as the editors had made it:

Q. So that, Mayor, actually, in the daily functioning of the government of Jersey City, your statement made under the circumstances we discussed earlier, `I am the law,' is to all practical intents and purposes true, isn't it?
A. Yes.' (Transcript, p 1250)
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