A curmudgeon in the old dictionaries is “an avaricious, grasping fellow” but in American political usage, as recorded in William Safire’s Political Dictionary, is “a likeably irascible old man…with a talent for invective.” The licensed scold has had a long life in American politics. The curmudgeon’s distinguishing mark is the ability to say things offensive and outrageous enough to sink any normal politician and yet continue to delight an indulgent public that responds fondly to each new extravagance.
The first and most stylish was John Randolph of Roanoke, who, for example, called the blameless Edward Livingston “a man of splendid abilities, but utterly corrupt. He shines and stinks like rotten mackerel in the moonlight.” Theodore Roosevelt was the preeminent twentieth-century curmudgeon, with his Ananias clubs, muckrakers, malefactors of great wealth, lunatic fringes, and nature-fakers. TR’s cantankerous disciple Harold Ickes remarked in the 1930s that Huey Long “is suffering from halitosis of the intellect. That’s presuming Senator Long has an intellect” and went on to dismiss the Republican candidate in 1940, Wendell L. Willkie of Commonwealth & Southern, as “the Barefoot Boy from Wall Street” and to note of the Republican candidate in 1944, “Tom Dewey has thrown his diapers into the ring.”
Fiorello H. LaGuardia, another son of the Bull Moose, set high goals for mayors of New York in the field of picturesque invective. Alas, the Little Flower must be a dim figure today, at least for the present incumbent of City Hall, who, in the two references to his distinguished predecessor in this new book, calls him “Fiorella.” Mayor Koch’s sense of history, though, is strictly contemporaneous. In an almost unique lapse into generosity, he pronounced Hugh Carey on Richard Heffner’s The Open Mind (March 3) “the greatest governor the state of New York has ever had.” Carey was unquestionably a first-rate governor when his mind was on the job; but it is hard to say that he was greater than a dozen eminent governors (four of whom went on to the presidency) during the long years from DeWitt Clinton to Nelson Rockefeller. Back to his usual self, the mayor in his book describes Carey as “absolutely bananas”—insulting enough, but a considerable descent in rhetorical majesty from Randolph and even from Ickes.
Mayor—the book might have been entitled more accurately Supermayor—is a profusion of anecdotes, artfully assembled by William Rauch, the mayor’s press secretary. (The populist hero notes with pride that Rauch “was a member of the Porcellian Club, Harvard’s most prestigious.”) Heaven alone knows about the authenticity of the anecdotes. The mayor admits that other participants may remember some of the incidents differently, and protest and correction have already been vehement. But no one can question the authenticity of the voice. This is Ed Koch in person, not a motion picture, certainly not a ghostwriter’s simulation. The voice runs on and on, breezy, cocky, truculent, self-satisfied, self-centered, vainglorious.
And sometimes genuinely funny: indeed, for a …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.
The Guiding Light May 10, 1984