Somewhere, Frank Hague Is Laughing

April 17, 2008

Adios, Sharpe James. Guilty on all counts. Looks like being the target of a passing pigeon isn’t such good luck after all.

I was about to say it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, but there are plenty of others who would look just as good in a prison jump suit. James robbed Newark of hundreds of thousands of dollars and cheated his constituents out of a better city, but any Republicans who want to make hay out of it are urged to turn their finely honed sense of ethics in the direction of the White House, where the administration they pledge fealty to is squandering money and human lives at a rate Sharpe James could only dream of, in the former case, and wouldn’t have the stomach for, in the latter.

Like all mechanical devices, urban political machines have a definite life span, past which they need to be retooled or replaced. The Sharpe James machine in Newark was a busted-down parody of the 20th century juggernauts guided by Frank Hague and Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, New Jersey’s twin monuments to bossism. Part of the problem was bad luck. Urban political machines run on money, favors and votes, and James’ misfortune was to have taken command of a city machine in an era when the money had leaked out to the suburbs, and favors were scarce. He could still get the votes, but that just meant he could stay in place, picking the bones of his city and snarling at anyone who might interfere with his scavenging — or, God forbid, institute a few reforms.

But the other part of the problem was that James couldn’t let go. Instead of getting out while the getting was good, he stayed on until he was as good as gotten.

As they say in the bond market, don’t be a hog, because hogs get slaughtered. Don’t hold on waiting for that next dollar. Frank Hague ruled Jersey City and Hudson County for three decades, and he had enough power to choose governors and cow Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But when he saw that his time was up, he made himself scarce. When John Kenny took over, Jersey City got all the Hague corruption without any of the benefits. Nucky Johnson ruled Atlantic City, and for a time he had so much influence he could put Walter Edge in the Statehouse and help Warren Harding into the White House (for which favor Harding bestowed two highways upon Atlantic City). But the showgirls, the sycophants and the torrents of vice money kept Johnson in the spotlight too long, and the Treasury Department boys landed on him with both feet.

Nucky and Hague were contemporaries, but Nucky went to jail while Hague remained footloose and fancy free, so Hague wins the title Boss of Bosses.

James could only dream of such a distinction. He should have cleared out before Cory Booker showed up, but that first mayoral battle raised Sharpe’s profile way too high. If you haven’t seen the documentary Street Fight, go rent it right now. To see thuggish police and machine pols playing their rough games while, all around them, their city screams for responsible leadership, is enough to ruin your next few dinners.

So adios, Sharpe James. Or, to put it a little more plainly, good riddance. Your city needed someone great, but all it got was you.

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