Eliot Spitzer is Reading the Wrong Book – By George J. Marlin
Governor Spitzer’s handlers have been hyping his reading of Robert Wesser’s 1967 book, Charles Evans Hughes: Politics and Reform in New York, 1905-1910. The Wesser work was referred to in The New Yorker profile, “The Humbling of Eliot Spitzer” and in the December 2 edition of the Times, their resident New York historian, Sam Roberts, opined on Hughes tenure in the executive mansion. When asked about the fuss, spokeswoman Christine Anderson said Spitzer “believes in the value of learning from the experiences of effective governors who came before him.”
Readers should know that Republican Charles Evans Hughes, who served as New York’s governor from 1905-1910, was an ineffective and aloof elitist who lacked the political skills to tame Albany. According to Professor Wesser, Hughes “insecure as a politician and possessing a profound dislike for political manipulation … abandoned the traditional ways of quietly cajoling unwilling colleagues into accepting his program…. Though his personal campaigns achieved a remarkable degree of success, their value was limited and not always did they alone assure an administration victory.”
Governor Hughes, whose primary achievement was the 1907 passage of the Moreland Act (which gave gubernatorial appointed commissions subpoena power to investigate government corruption charges), happily resigned in 1910 for a job he believed he was better suited – Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the early twentieth century, Charles Evans Hughes and his upper east side “Silk Stocking” friends despised the Irish-dominated Democratic political machines that ruled most of urban New York. Daniel Patrick Moynihan has written that the Irish have a genius for organization. The Irish drafted the blueprints for most of the big-city political machines, and – being Roman Catholic – they were spontaneous advocates of subsidiarity. They built from the bottom up: neighborhoods were organized block by block, through parishes, clubhouses, saloons, and candy stores. This was the system that provided services and dispensed patronage, contracts, and franchises to the faithful.
New York City’s much-maligned Tammany Hall stands as the premier example of a political machine. At its best Tammany was represented by the likes of professional pol George Washington Plunkitt (1842-1924), who made the city work through “honest graft”; at its worst by Boss William Tweed (1823-1878), who made the city work almost entirely for himself and a few cronies. Plunkitt helped thousands of immigrants assimilate into mainstream American life. Tweed, ultimately unable to govern, found his lease on city hall terminated with a jail sentence.
Tammany’s Charles Francis Murphy (1858-1924) was the very model of the boss. He remained in power for decades because he felt a sense of civic responsibility to his wards. Hughes and his reformer friends, who tried to claim the credit for saving the cities, were in Plunkitt’s words, “short-lived morning glories.” The good government patricians’ hold on office has always been brief. Instead of rolling up their sleeves and mixing it up with the people, they appointed blue-ribbon committees to study constitutional reform. Tammany Hall on the other hand, as even The New York Times admitted in 1923, “wore human spectacles.” Goo-Goos, like Hughes, failed because they “attempted to deal with … municipal government as though it were a private corporation, and they a board of directors whose only aims were efficiency and economy. [They forgot] that a city administration must have a heart as well as a head.”
The reign of Boss Murphy begat New York’s most effective governor, Al Smith. It was Smith who as governor of New York managed to implement a state agenda that embodied the principle of subsidiarity. Unlike Hughes, he was not embarrassed to deal with politicians and to bargain for programs that enhanced the quality of life in the neighborhoods. His record shows it, featuring as it does the construction of hospitals for the indigent and mentally ill, a state teachers college, a network of parks, 5,000 miles of roads, as well as social legislation that eliminated sweat shops, regulated child and female labor, established a forty-eight-hour work week, created workmen’s compensation and widow’s pensions, and instituted a primary system.
Charles Evans Hughes is the wrong model for Eliot Spitzer. To get the governor on the right track, his advisors should urge him to read Robert Wesser’s sequel, A Response to Progressivism: The Democratic Party and New York Politics, 1902-1918. It tells the story of effective ghetto politicians who really understood the heart and soul of New York.