What’s a Non-White Voter Anyway?

John F. Kennedy, making a speech. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

The Last Hurrah was a very fine movie, made by John Ford in 1958 and starring Spencer Tracy. It is based on an even finer book by Edwin O’Connor, which had been a boffo bestseller two years prior.

They tell the story of Frank Skeffington, the mayor of a never-named big city in the Northeast. O’Connor keenly, wistfully tells the story of how an old campaigner, already an astonishing 72 years of age, makes one last stand against the encroachments of televised, college-educated, professionalized politics.

Skeffington is unmistakably based on Boston political boss James Curley, who lost his bid for a fifth term as mayor in 1949. Omitted, of course, is the part about how Curley spent part of his fourth term in prison for yet another episode of brazen corruption. Or how a deeply indebted Curley had returned to City Hall for that term after leaving a seat in Congress, probably at the urging and compensation of Joe Kennedy, who wanted the spot for his war-hero son, Jack.* Or how Curley had won the House seat in the first place by smearing his opponent as a communist sympathizer.

Curley was a culture war populist who derived his power from a combination of public works projects, brutal corruption, and by delighting working-class Boston with theatrical affronts to the already-toppled WASP establishment.

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