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The art of the great American political vendetta was born in New Jersey, just a short drive – barring heavy traffic – south of the George Washington Bridge. There, in the town of Weehawken, on a majestic cliff overlooking the Hudson River, the vice president of the United States, Aaron Burr, shot and killed his longtime political nemesis, the former secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, in 1804.
Burr blamed Hamilton for his loss in the New York gubernatorial election a few months earlier and decided it was time to extract revenge in the most direct way possible. Luckily, for members of today’s political class, political vendettas are decidedly less violent these days. But they seem no less passionate.
The scandal that has now overtaken New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has all the elements of an old-fashioned political vendetta — without firearms. The governor himself says he played no role in a reported plot to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for refusing to endorse his re-election campaign. But emails and text messages from the governor’s friends and his deputy chief of staff make it clear that they wished to extract political vengeance for this slight – and were willing to suffocate a city with traffic to do so.
The actions of Christie’s aides have been denounced as petty and thuggish. But another figure from New Jersey’s past would no doubt have been far less judgmental. Frank Hague was mayor of Jersey City, the state’s second-largest city, from 1917 to 1947. He ruled the city and surrounding Hudson County with an iron fist, once declaring, “I am the law.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. Critics and foes challenged Hague at their peril. Those who persisted found themselves on the wrong side of the law – Hague’s law.
For example, John Longo, a quixotic political activist in the 1930s who regularly held court in a place called Bickford’s Cafeteria in Jersey City’s bustling center, Journal Square. The city’s dissidents regularly gathered in Bickford’s to hear Longo rail against Hague and his formidable machine, an important component of which was the city’s police. Among those in attendance from time to time was a young singer who lived nearby, Francis Albert Sinatra.
Longo decided to make the move from activism to campaign politics in 1937, when Hague was up for re-election. Hague was riding high that year, having ingratiated himself with President Franklin D. Roosevelt by turning out huge margins for the president in the 1936 election – and, just as an insurance policy, naming the city’s new ballpark Roosevelt Stadium.
Longo not only decided to challenge Hague personally, he put together a slate of lesser candidates to challenge the Hague machine. The mayor was not pleased. After Longo filed petition signatures to qualify for the ballot, Hague’s police arrested him on fraud charges. He was convicted in short order and served nine months in prison. Hague won re-election.
But the vendetta didn’t end there. When Longo got a job with New Jersey’s Democratic Governor Charles Edison – son of Thomas – Hague ordered his arrest again, leading to another short term in prison.
Across the Hudson River in New York, politicians found equally dramatic ways of settling scores. William Sulzer was elected governor of New York in 1912 with the support of Tammany Hall, the legendary political machine based in New York City. Not long after taking office, Sulzer announced that he would be his own man, and that Tammany’s boss, Charles Francis Murphy, would have no special influence in Albany.
This was not especially shrewd of Sulzer. Murphy was a proud man, and felt that he had nurtured Sulzer’s career and, in fact, had propelled him to bigger and better things. Murphy was dismayed.
Things got worse in the spring of 1913, when Sulzer announced that he would introduce a new law calling for primary elections to decide nominations, taking power out of the hands of bosses like Murphy. He also attacked Murphy personally, assailing him as a dictator.
Murphy found Sulzer’s criticism just a wee bit ungrateful. This state of affairs simply wouldn’t do. So he took aside his allies in the state Legislature and told them that the governor of New York was to be impeached, and it was up to them to find the evidence. Murphy’s allies investigated Sulzer and were shocked, shocked to discover that he had misappropriated campaign funds.
Two of Murphy’s protégés, Assemblyman Al Smith and State Senator Robert Wagner, presided over the impeachment and conviction of Sulzer, the only New York governor ever removed from office.
Just a few years later, Smith found himself engaged in a campaign of vendetta with one of the era’s most powerful tycoons, William Randolph Hearst. The famed newspaper publisher yearned for political influence, and when Smith, now the governor, refused to appoint a Hearst ally to a judicial post in 1919, Hearst’s popular newspapers charged that Smith was responsible for the deaths of children because he supported high dairy prices, leading to unaffordable milk. Day after day, Hearst’s newspapers portrayed Smith as the killer of innocent children.
Smith seethed. In 1922, Smith’s fellow Democrats were prepared to nominate Hearst for the office of U.S. Senate. The deal was done, and Hearst was a happy man. But Smith intervened at the last minute — if Hearst were nominated, he said, he would not run for re-election as governor. The party caved, and Hearst’s dream of becoming a senator was thwarted.
Now it was Hearst’s turn. He watched and waited as Smith became a national figure, winning the Democratic presidential nomination in 1928, but losing in a landslide. In 1932, Smith hoped to win the nomination again, knowing that any Democrat who ran was likely to beat President Herbert Hoover in the midst of the Great Depression.
The Democrats were split in ’32 between Smith and his onetime friend and fellow New Yorker, Roosevelt. As FDR seemed to be losing momentum, Hearst helped engineer a deal that put Texas and California in Roosevelt’s column, ensuring Smith’s defeat.
Smith never got over it. But then again, Hearst never got what he wanted either — thanks in part to Smith.
Vendettas have been part of U.S. politics since the republic’s founding. While they may not make for good government, well, there’s no doubt that they make for good stories.
Just ask the people who cover New Jersey for a living.
Terry Golway is author of “Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics,” to be published by March. He is director of the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy.
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