The Democratic Machine: Carmine DeSapio and Jacob Javits Debate Ethics in Politics

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Speaking first in this 1955 debate, the Democratic boss Carmine G. DeSapio bristles at the question, "Is Tammany Hall fundamentally corrupt?" He dismisses such "sinister implications," claiming they refer to long-ago scandals.

Now, Tammany is just a nickname, DeSapio says. Yes, it is used to distribute largesse, in the form of clothes and food for the indigent, and derive people's voter loyalty from such acts, but the very legislation it then helped to enact has largely taken over such functions. Now it functions purely as an organization to create and implement policy. He credits Tammany for coming up with the New Deal, although he associates it not with Franklin D. Roosevelt but with former Gov. Alfred E. Smith. Currently, Tammany has involved itself in offering free "rent clinics" in all its meeting houses, to advise tenants affected by the recent (Republican-led) 15-percent rent increase. It is also crucially concerned with electing more "minorities."

While he admits that there have been recent scandals in New York City's administration, he contends they are no worse than those in Saratoga Springs or Philadelphia, where Republicans hold sway. As for choosing candidates, the smoke-filled room is a thing of the past. Now, most Tammany choices for public office are the result of sophisticated polling indicating who the people truly want to see in office.

Jacob K. Javits, at that time New York State attorney general, then takes the stage and attempts to rebut DeSapio, calling him "a real spunky fella." He recalls his father, a janitor, distributing two-dollar bills to all the Democrat-voting occupants of the buildings he served. The money, clothing, Thanksgiving turkey, and Christmas baskets were, he contends, "the cover under which tenements were kept ugly and filthy and vermin-infested and housing laws were not enforced." He brings up the Kefauver Commission's findings that there is a connection between the Mafia and Tammany. He then speaks about the code of ethics just passed by the state legislature. This, he hopes, will have a positive impact on future elections. Indeed, he hopes such codes can be extended to trade unions, institutions of higher education, and businesses. He also refers to Maryland, which just passed a code for fair campaign practices, which he hopes New York State will emulate, and says he hopes that voters will insist, in the future, that all candidates pledge to follow its restrictions on scurrilous campaign tactics. He praises "the growing maturity of our country" and contrasts it with the specter of Communism. For if we don't establish some "rules to the game" how can we become "the responsible and successful leader of the Free World?"

Javits was born in 1904. His father, as he mentions in this debate, in addition to being a janitor, was a ward heeler for the Tammany machine. Javits, however, became a follower of the Republican Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia. He rose through the ranks of the Republican Party, winning an unlikely victory in 1945, when he was elected to the House of Representatives from Manhattan's predominantly Democratic Upper West Side. In 1954 he was elected New York attorney general and two years later was elected to the U.S. Senate. Javits' success in appealing to New York City residents was unique. When running for re-election in 1962, he carried the city itself, a feat last accomplished by a candidate running solely on the Republican ticket in 1924 by Calvin Coolidge. Much of this could be attributed to his interpretation of the Republican message. As The Philadelphia Inquirer reported:

Javits espoused a progressive brand of Republicanism, contending that the party should develop programs in health, housing, civil rights, labor, and agriculture to appeal to the urban voter. The Republican Party, after all, he said, had begun with Lincoln as the party of "the free working man."

He was also one of the more colorful members of the Senate, instantly recognizable, perhaps because he shared few of the more common characteristics (hair, a Protestant background, a plodding speaking style) prevalent then — as now — among members of that body. Although never rising to a committee chairmanship (his party was always in the minority) he was, The New York Times summarized:

…widely regarded, by admirers and detractors alike, as one of the most intelligent, industrious and effective members of the Senate during his years there, from 1957 through 1980. As a senator, he was affable and ebullient, abrasive and brusque -- qualities that made it difficult for him to win acceptance as an insider in the exclusive Senate club, especially when it was controlled by crusty Southern Democrats.

Later in his Senate career, Javits came to be regarded as an expert on foreign policy. For many years he was the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. The Oxford Dictionary of Political Biography tells how:

…Initially a hawk on military spending and supportive of the war in Vietnam, he became a critic and later helped pass the Cooper-Church amendment (which banned funding for military involvement in Cambodia) and the War Powers Act of 1973 which reasserted Congressional control over the war-making power by limiting the president's freedom to deploy troops overseas. He was also a strong supporter of the state of Israel and assisted President Carter in promoting the Middle East peace process of 1977.

Life on the liberal fringes of the Republican party became increasingly difficult, though, and in 1980, in poor health (he had Lou Gehrig's Disease), he was defeated by Alfonse D'Amato. Ironically, D'Amato's campaign became infamous for exhibiting just the type of "scurrilous tactics" Javits rails against in this debate. Refusing to concede defeat, Javits ran on the Liberal Party ticket, effectively siphoning off enough votes from the Democratic candidate, Elizabeth Holtzman, to assure his rival's victory by 1 percent.

Jacob Javits died in 1986 at age 81.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.