The story I thought of is an old book called The Last Hurrah. (It was also made into a movie starring Spencer Tracy back in the 1950s.) It’s about an aging big city mayor named Frank Skeffington.
Skeffington was a fictional character and the big city was never actually named, but everyone knew the city was Boston and that Frank Skeffington was really James Michael Curley, the legendary Irish-American rascal politician who served four terms as the mayor of Boston, four in Congress, one as governor…and two in prison.
In The Last Hurrah, Frank Skeffington is 72 years old and the world is changing around him. The ethnic politics he’s mastered are going out of style. The machine that’s fueled him is running out of gas. The voters who used to look the other way because they knew he was on their side, who were in on the joke, are dying off.
But Frank Skeffington can’t give it up. This is his life. It’s who he is. It’s what he is. So he sets out to run one final time–to stare down his young reformer opponent, to hold on to the power, to the relevance, to the action that give his life meaning. His wife has passed, his son’s a disappointment, there’s nothing else for Frank Skeffington to do, no one to pass the torch to. This is the only thing that’s real to him.
And then it’s ripped away. Skeffington runs the campaign of his life, tries all of his old tricks, but they don’t work in this new world and he loses. He’s finished. It’s all over for him.The Last Hurrah ends with sadness and loneliness that has stuck with me since I first read it, and it was on my mind last night. You could argue that Thad Cochran and Charlie Rangel won Pyrrhic victories last night.
Cochran had to rely on the other party’s voters to win his own primary and his name will probably be a curse word to the GOP’s base for years to come. He’s probably not going to have much influence in the national Republican Party going forward.
And then there’s Rangel. He used to be the king of Harlem politics, but he couldn’t even crack 50% in his own primary last night. Just to survive, he had to promise voters that this was it, that he’d never run again after this. When he gets back to Washington, he won’t have a committee gavel; he’ll be in the minority party in the House. Barack Obama wanted nothing to do with him in this race.
You could argue that the joke is on Cochran and Rangel–sure, they won, but what can they do now?
But that misses the point because, in their own ways, they’re both just like Frank Skeffington. This is who they are. This is what they do.
And last night, unlike Frank Skeffington, they won their last hurrahs.