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The Boss

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

As the great depression deepened after 1929, it became clearer and clearer to Mayor Hague and his friend that the man who received the Democratic nomination in 1932 would be the next President. They were alarmed, however, at the rise of Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York as a presidential possibility. Hague went through the middle Atlantic states trying to line up anti-Roosevelt delegates, and then, as floor manager of the Smith forces, he went out to Chicago early.

On June 23 before the convention opened, relying upon his position as vice-chairman, he issued his famous statement containing words he later had to recant:

I deem it my duty as the vice-chairman of the Democratic National Committee and the leader of the Democracy of the State of New Jersey to call to the attention of the delegations and of the leaders of the Democracy in the different states and counties of the country who are gathering here in Chicago that Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, if nominated, has no chance of winning at the election in November. I have felt out public sentiment, not alone here but in practically every state in the union, particularly those states east of the Mississippi, and I am brought to the conclusion that he cannot carry a single state east of the Mississippi and very few in the Far West....

I am genuinely interested because the tendency of the people of New Jersey has been to support the Republican national ticket in Presidential years. It is only fair as the leader of the party in New Jersey to predict that if Governor Roosevelt is nominated our state will be in the Republican column. ... Why consider the one man who is weakest in the eyes of the rank and file?

The issuance of this ill-considered statement was as bad a political blunder as Frank Hague ever made. The use of his party position in behalf of one candidate was to many delegates offensive enough; to use it against a single candidate was worse. The manifest exaggeration in the prediction that a man who had carried New York could not carry a state east of the Mississippi weakened the statement, while also making it memorable, as pre-nomination statements should not be. The warning that New Jersey would go Republican if the convention nominated Roosevelt was a hint at party treason.

James A. Farley, more astute than Smith's floor manager, did not answer the broadside, but when he came to write his book Behind the Ballots he remembered Hague's night-and-day efforts to stop Roosevelt. At one time Hague offered to switch his thirty-six votes to Garner to form an anti-Roosevelt coalition. June 30, managing the Smith forces, he said, `We've got them licked.' That was one more political prediction that went wrong, but when the Roosevelt tide swept in, he held the New Jersey delegates for Smith until the very end. Had the fortunes of politics turned the other way, he might have been numbered among the postmasters general. On the sad return journey Frank Hague had a hard decision to make. Smith was not going to follow Roosevelt, and fifteen years of friendship called upon the Mayor to stand by Smith. On the other hand, supposing Roosevelt should win without Hague's help or in spite of his opposition? Who would get the New Jersey federal patronage? What would happen to his position as vice-chairman? What might a hostile attorney-general find, nosing about in Hudson County?

When he got back to Jersey City he announced that he would support Roosevelt for President. This statement ended the great friendship with Smith, but it saved Frank Hague.

The next thing to do was to appease Farley. He telephoned to Farley that if he would send the nominee to New Jersey to open the campaign, Hague `would provide the largest political rally ever held in the United States.' (James A. Farley, Behind the Ballots (1938), p. 158.) On July 11, speaking before the Hudson County Democratic Committee, he made a public recantation: `I have no apologies to make for the battle conducted at the Democratic Convention in Chicago.... Disregarding words uttered in the white heat of political conflict out of loyalty to a cause espoused, let us consider the actual facts of the situation that now confront US...' (Newark Evening News, July 12, 1932.) That same day he talked to Governor Roosevelt and obtained his promise to come to Sea Girt on August 27. Farley was impressed by the `monster outdoor rally' that Hague put on at Sea Girt, where he assembled more than a hundred thousand people, and thought that `If it wasn't the biggest rally in history up to that time, it must have been very close to it.' (Farley, op. cit.) Hague could never enter the select company of those who were `For Roosevelt Before Chicago,' but the gigantic demonstration showed the hand of a master organizer, one who was to be treated with respect.

To overcome his apostasy Hague worked as hard for Roosevelt as he had ever worked for Smith. The level of the arguments he used may be judged from the campaign slogan he advocated: `Hoover fed the Belgians and starved the Americans.' He produced thirty thousand more votes for Roosevelt in Hudson County than Smith had received in 1928; the vote was 184,000 to 66,000. This majority swung New Jersey for the Democratic Party, 806,000 to 775,000. But the Roosevelt tide was not strong enough to carry into office the Democratic candidate for United States senator, though later Hague elected William H. Smathers and A. Harry Moore to the Senate.

The friendship with Smith, moribund after 1932, was killed in 1936 when Smith went over to the enemy. In a speech he made in Jersey City just before the election of 1936, Mayor Hague denounced his former friend as `this Republican spellbinder.' He went on to say, `It is a sorry spectacle to see a man who once was the most distinguished Democrat in the nation do their [the Republicans'] bidding without having any personal conviction of the truth or falsehood of the issues which have been raised.'

No New Deal policy has ever been publicly criticized by Mayor Hague. On the contrary, he has often referred to President Roosevelt as `that great humanitarian.' As far as his instructions have gone, his congressmen and senators have been directed to follow White House orders. This hierarchical kind of party obedience is consistent with the Mayor's view of his own authority over lesser politicians they owe allegiance to him, and he owes allegiance to a president of his party. This concept simplifies representative government a great deal. When A. Harry Moore was senator, however, he ventured on one or two occasions to ignore White House orders : he voted to override the President's veto of the bonus, and he announced that he was opposed to the Supreme Court plan. Senator Smathers has been a convinced and consistent New Dealer without any urging from City Hall, Jersey City.


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