by Helen Breen
Some things never change.
In the midst of the inflammatory rhetoric of the 2016 American Presidential campaign, let us pause and reflect on the simpler, but no less acrimonious, political days of yore. To wit – the Massachusetts US Senate race of 1936. In the ring – Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., a Harvard educated Brahmin of impeccable credentials. His opponent – James Michael Curley, combat-scarred Irish politician who had served as mayor of Boston and Governor of Massachusetts.
At age 34 Henry Cabot Lodge had represented Beverly for two terms in the Massachusetts State Legislature. Gaining stature in the Republican party, he was anxious to test his strength by seeking the US Senate seat of William Butler who had died in office. Fortunately for Cabot, political pro Tom White became his mentor. Lodge learned quickly. With White’s direction and the candidate’s appeal, Lodge defeated Mayor Sinclair Weeks of Newton for the Republican nomination in a dramatic finish at the Springfield convention that summer. Capturing the party’s approval was only a warm-up for Lodge’s combat with Curley, a Brahmin-baiting warrior who would use guerilla tactics against the young aristocrat. After his terms as mayor and his stint as governor, Curley aspired to the world’s most exclusive club, the US Senate. Attacking the Yankee establishment for all woes, real and imagined, had been Curley’s specialty. He once said that the term “codfish aristocracy” was a “negative reflection on the revered fish in the Commonwealth.”
During the campaign, Curley told a crowd in Springfield: “You young Republicans have no more chance to join the Somerset Club than I have, if your ancestors didn’t get rich in the first two or three generations by selling opium to the Chinese, rum to the Indians, or getting into the slave racket.” Curley called Cabot a “young man who parts both his name and his hair in the middle.” He described Lodge as “Little Boy Blue,” that is, “blue-blooded, handsome, and a boy.”
At the same time, Cabot’s forces were gathering. A band of friends abandoned their professional careers in the summer of ’36 to support Lodge. “Corinthians” they called themselves, a yachting term for enthusiastic amateurs. What they lacked in funds, they made up for in zeal. Lodge’s finance chairman confessed, “We didn’t raise much money. Most came from the Sears family (the candidate’s in-laws). However, you didn’t need much in those days – telephones mostly.”
Henry Cabot Lodge became a hardy campaigner who loved to press the political flesh. To Italian gatherings he brought his charming Florence-born sister-in-law who sang opera selections. Then he stressed the Italian origins of the “Caboto” name. On another stop, he would delight Canadian mill workers by speaking to them in French. The Republican nominee logged over 100,000 miles in the Bay State that year. Lodge never drove himself, fearing that the opposition might frame him in an accident.
Meanwhile, Curley brought suit before the Ballot Commission claiming that Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., was an imposter. “Junior,” the former mayor reasoned, meant “son of.” Cabot had been raised by his illustrious grandfather Senator Henry Cabot Lodge when his own father died young. The case was dropped when the Nahant birth certificate was produced bearing the correct name. It was conceded that, according to Webster’s Dictionary, “junior” also meant “the younger.” Curiously, when Curley’s own birth certificate was examined, the middle name of “Michael” was missing. But Lodge’s forces let the matter die.
As the fight narrowed, Curley assailed the old Henry Cabot Lodge calling his record “mean and low.” Cabot lashed out saying that his antagonist had “reached into the grave” with his accusations. Through it all, Lodge never mentioned his opponent’s name, a strategy that infuriated Curley. Once the 61 year old James Michael declared, “When my youthful rival was wearing diapers, I was serving the Commonwealth in the halls of Congress.” A Globe columnist observed that Lodge refrained from replying, “When I was wearing diapers, my opponent was serving a six-month sentence in the Charles Street Jail.”
On these matters, Lodge followed the dictates of his advisor Tom White. So that his candidate would appear as a man of the people, White insisted to his aides: “Don’t press Cabot’s suit every time he takes it off. Find one of his oldest suits and don’t let him take it off until after the election!”
The fight became a re-run of David and Goliath. One pundit called this “flesh and blueblood” contest the “best political drama of the year.” On election night Henry Cabot Lodge defeated Curley by a plurality of 135,409 votes, in spite of a Democratic landslide for Roosevelt. The presence of a third party candidate, Thomas O’Brien, had split the Democratic ticket to Lodge’s advantage. Curley later quipped that he had offered O’Brien $10,000 to drop out of the race, but the Republicans gave him $25,000 to remain in.
James Michael, however, was not a man to hold a grudge. In the early ’50s, he appreciated Ambassador Lodge’s strong anti-Communist stance in the United Nations. He sent an unexpected fan letter saying that his old foe had the superior leadership “required for the position of President of the United States which, I believe, you will attain some day.” Lodge was deeply touched.
The victory was a springboard to an outstanding political career for Lodge, including a grueling ambassadorship to South Vietnam in the late 60s. Curley would soldier on to a fourth term as Mayor of Boston and to more service in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. When he died in 1958 at age 83, James Michael Curley’s body lay in state at the Massachusetts State House, viewed by over 100,000 mourners. Henry Cabot Lodge’s death in 1985 at age 82 engendered accolades from around the world for his long and varied diplomatic service to the US. We might imagine both Lodge and Curley in their later years reflecting back on the heady 1936 United States Senate race with a smile. Some things never change…