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Thomas Fleming: Obama's from Chicago ... Why that Shouldn't Worry Us

[Thomas Fleming is a past president of the Society of American Historians. He is the author of a much praised memoir, Mysteries of My Father.]

Good old Chicago. Thanks to garrulous Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, we have just learned that in the home town of President-Elect Barack Obama, who has promised us a regime dedicated to change, nothing seems to have changed.

I write as lifelong student – and survivor-- of Democratic politics, Jersey City division. We always felt close to Chicago. In the early 1930s, our leader, Mayor Frank Hague, was up against the wall. He had lost most of his money in the Crash of 1929. He had backed Al Smith instead of FDR in the 1932 Democratic Convention. He had barely won reelection in 1929 and his foes in and out of the party were gathering to demolish him in the upcoming city election.

My father, Teddy Fleming, one of the Mayor’s right hand men, told me what happened next. Hague picked up the telephone and called his pal Ed Kelly, the boss of Chicago. “Ed, “ he said. “I need two million bucks fast.”

“You’ll have it tomorrow,” Ed replied

The next morning a dapper gentleman, fresh off the overnight train from Chicago, arrived at Jersey City’s City Hall with two million delicious greenbacks in a suitcase. A revived Frank Hague easily won reelection. Ed Kelly helped him make peace with President Roosevelt, who delivered all the jobs in the WPA and other Federal programs into the Mayor’s care in New Jersey. That made him an unbeatable titan for most of another two decades. These same Washington goodies were, of course, also handed to Ed Kelly to distribute in Illinois. Throughout the 1930s, Ed toured Chicago and its environs giving a very successful speech entitled: “Roosevelt Is My Religion.”

Is this as bad as it sounds? Maybe not. Last spring, the New Jersey Historical Commission gave me a Lifetime Achievement Award for writing American history. I responded with a brief speech entitled: “Us Against Them.” I explained that this was the motto of Jersey City’s politics in my boyhood. It was us, the Irish-Americans and their Italian, Polish, Czech, Hungarian and Jewish allies against the hypocritical mean-spirited white Protestants of New Jersey, who thought they were entitled to run things because their ancestors had been around in 1776.

One might assume this philosophy would produce a lifelong political cynic. For a while it did. I agreed with another famous boss, Huey Long of Louisiana, that people were born corrupt and stayed that way. But in 1970, at the age of 43 I had a unique experience. I met ex-President Harry S. Truman. He had liked my biography of Thomas Jefferson and selected me to help his daughter Margaret write his biography I spent several weeks in Independence over the next year, talking to him and Mrs. Truman about his political career.

It soon dawned on me that here was a man who began as a candidate of Kansas City Missouri’s Boss Tom Pendergast, leader of one of the roughest, toughest, most corrupt political organizations in America. Yet HST never took a cent of dirty money from Pendergast, and he stood up to him when crooked contractors tried to build lousy highways on the cheap in Truman’s bailiwick. He won Boss Tom’s respect and his nomination for the U.S. Senate, which led to the vice presidency and his “accidental” presidency when FDR died in 1945.

As president, Mr. Truman amazed cynics and skeptics with his honesty and courage and vision. Perhaps his most daring decision was his insistence on a civil rights plank in the 1948 Democratic Convention. Four southern states, led by Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, seceded from the party. Party cynics pleaded with them, pointing out that President Roosevelt had had similar planks in the platform in all four of his nominating conventions. “Yes but Truman means it!” Thurmond said.

For black Americans 1948 was a turning point in their long and often torturous struggle for equality and respect. President Lyndon Johnson made that clear when he signed his landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. He invited Harry Truman to stand beside him at the ceremony.

I voted for Harry Truman and that plank in 1948. Thinking about it in 1970, face to face with the man who was responsible for it, I realized that the old motto of my boyhood, “Us Against Them,” had expired in that election.

That enabled me to appreciate – and applaud -- a lot of things that had changed and were changing in my native New Jersey. Governors like Richard Hughes and Brendan Byrne had proved that Irish-Americans could think and act and lead on behalf of all the people in the state. Soon, thanks to reading a lot of history, I got a perspective on Frank Hague and my father and their generation that enabled me to explain them to myself and a lot of other people -- without minimizing their flaws. They were part of our past, part of the long often angry struggle of both ethnic Americans and blacks to win recognition of their humanity and right to a fair deal.

Looking back at the history of the presidency, it is remarkable how often the voters chose men who did not seem promising to the educated elite. The so-called best people were appalled by that hot tempered roughneck from Tennessee, Andrew Jackson. They took an equally dim view of Abraham Lincoln, with his weird Kentucky accent and Aw Shucks style. In New Jersey they dubbed him “The Brainless Bobolink of the Prairie.” If ex-haberdasher Harry Truman could emerge from Kansas City’s Pendergast machine and achieve presidential greatness, I think we can continue to hope President-elect Barack Obama of Chicago can do it too.