Irish Politics in Old Time California

Daniel Cassidy’s How the Irish Invented Slang  is a great gift, a revelation, a genuine invasion of one’s speech patterns (I’ll be looking over my tongue’s shoulder for the Irish from now on). Cassidy beautifully handles the problem of our unconsciousness of this, or as I used to put it in high school, my “street” rather than “home” (proper grammatical English) language. What a pain in the ass it was to have to speak only the one at college. It made working on peach-loading docks in the summers a deep relief. Ah, the pleasure of Okie lingo (shaggin’, whalloping, boozin’ ).  My working college summers were slang shindigs, as far from the sound of the “C major of life” as one can get culling loads of brown rot peaches by the headlights of pickups on the banks of a Central Valley river here in California. Not to deny the admixture of Spanish slang – pinche guajolote, pues – but the dominant idiom of the time was still working stiff gringo.

So, Cassidy immediately engages us at very deep levels. I am in the grip of his idea and how he is working it out. In San Francisco, too, although many are dead now, 20 years ago you could still hear a Irish lilt in many of the best parlors in the city, which simply denoted the speaker was born in that city. I think the Democratic Party pols who weren’t Irish San Franciscans picked it up unconsciously along with a basic vocabulary of Irish origins explaining what they were getting paid to do. Listen to pols like Gray Davis and Bill Lockyear: the tones are there but, as Cassidy indicates, by any other name. But they all sound familiar, if you’d ever worked for Pat Brown.
The day John Burton, then president pro tem of the state Senate, who had learned to speak and think in his political family and in bars like Monahan’s and Harrington’s, called UC Merced “a boondoggle,” he knew exactly what he was saying. And, SF-born myself, my heart leapt for joy because I did, too, and the word brought the discourse down to its proper level and the UC big shots cut back the lying to senators for a while. But, in defense of UC administrators, they could hardly have called UC Merced what it is, a boondoggle, a scam, and nothing but a land deal. They had to try to keep the Legislature’s mind off the obvious description. No idiom in the land beats flawless academic-speak for that purpose.

Anathema to UC was our own local expression, “boomdoggle,” that caught both the scam of the campus and all its induced development, now melting down in subprime catastrophe.

Cassidy’s book is beautiful because it brings us down to, among other things, the proper vocabulary for political objects and verbs.
However, Cassidy’s work also reminds us of Appalachian poet Jim Wayne Miller, one of whose “Brier” poems talks about old Scots words for farming — nouns and verbs — how they were being forgotten, and how heart-breaking that was. Miller felt very strongly that these words bound Appalachians to their history and healed historical wounds, prejudice, oppression, and the exploitations of culture.

“Brierhopper” was an alternative to “hillbilly.” Our own variant around here (at least around Bakersfield) is “peckerwood.” It sounds like a mere inversion of “woodpecker,” but, deep in Cassidy’s revelations, I’m hoping for a Gaelic or an Irish solution to the puzzle.

The melodic sound of Irish words for violence – slugger, whale, mill, mayhem, Sunday or sucker (punch), swoon, etc. – remind me of a fellow who fought 40 years ago out of a Haight Street bar whose ring moniker was the “Battling Hippie” (he sported long green trunks and a pony tail). In college, while contemplating turning pro, he fell in love with a banker’s daughter, hung up the mawleys and got a PhD in English literature. A finer, gentler man you couldn’t fine, but the day we were demonstrating against the war and were being harassed by an aggressive knucklehead faction, it was a pleasure being at his side as he negotiated the rules with the opposition. The professor didn’t have a speck of yellow in his makeup, the chief knucklehead perceived the fact and order was restored for the duration of the demonstration.

Cassidy reminds me of the Boss of our little world of political campaign professionals during my post-graduate studies in nuts-and-bolts. Mr. Bradley spoke little, always clearly, and you didn’t argue. He had forgotten more about any conceivable political situation than you would ever know. He had guided many of the most important  Democratic Party campaigns in the state from the end of WWII until the 70’s, when the party had the highest registration percentage in its history in California and the best voter turnout. He spoke pure Irish political slang and claimed his own contribution, “Joe Sixpak,” at once his linguistic creation and political nemesis. Bradley spent his formative years in politics when if you wanted to find a guy in the neighborhood to talk to about the candidate, you went to his corner bar, where the guy cashed his paycheck and drank his beer after work. “Sixpak” drank his beer at home watching TV, so you couldn’t talk to him. You had to rely on the media. Bradley knew that was the end of politics. He became a political bard the day he told SF Chronicle columnist Herb Caen about Joe Sixpak.

Pat Brown, running for Attorney General in 1950, came into the Topaz Room in Santa Rosa and worked the diners. “There’s that Pat Brown again,” my Republican grandmother said. “It’s getting so you can’t go out without meeting him. Oh, hello, Mr. Brown.” Pleasantries were exchanged, I shook the hand of my future employer for the first time, there was no sound bite and he seemed like a nice man, despite my grandmother’s carping.
By the time Bradley and the campaign geniuses leaked the story of George Christopher’s milk scandal in the 1966 primary, thinking a Hollywood actor would be the preferred opposition to their ancient Republican foe in San Francisco, the die were cast. Reagan was never anything but a sound bite. The spiel went that “Brown was no good on TV.” What was meant was that Brown didn’t have a sound bite in him and sounded ridiculous when he tried. His best speech writer said he used to read Mark Twain for a half hour, have a little whisky and cut it loose.  Cassidy quotes Twain extensively for examples of Irish words, marvelous concoctions like “the fantod.” Bradley and Brown’s idea of how to use the media was to lock the campaign hacks and their typewriters in a room with walls made of windows to keep an eye on them.

Politics was people you talked to in their bars and restaurants and especially on the telephone. For the phone, the Boss had a secret weapon known as “Cyr’s Rolodex.” (More on Cyr later.) It was the bee’s knees of private political telephone numbers in the state and nation.

Mr. Bradley was the last statewide campaign manager who had a grassroots grasp of California, almost block-by-block.  The numbers beat him. Three decades after his last campaign, the state has nearly twice as many people and the developers own the Legislature as completely as Southern Pacific owned it before the Reform movement. Possibly worse than the political corruption has been what’s happened to statewide campaigns. The hacks escaped from their cages into the head offices and turned campaigns into baloney factories. If someone were to say today that political campaigns organized communities at a grassroots level, you’d laugh in his mug and tell him to scram. Karl Rove is the reigning political big shot and his whole gig has been social destruction.

Nobody I ever saw or heard of could calm and charm a hostile crowd better than Pat Brown, although last year Pete McCloskey changed a lot of righwinger views in Richard Pombo’s former district. I believe it is one of the rarest human talents (and in its masters it is genius), but it may simply have been driven off the podium in America at the moment. It is a highly complex quality, a mixture of genuine friendliness toward strangers, a respect for every man, woman and child regardless of class, creed, ideology or race, and an ability to listen under duress. It is a form of grace and Irish-American politicians seemed, at least once, to have cultivated it more highly than any other group. It is a secret mixture of love and courage, generally unknown to its possessor, producing an instinct composed of love of political battle, joy in punishing enemies, and compassion for the oppressed. Bobby Kennedy said it best, frequently in the spring of 1968, when touring some of the most impoverished regions of the nation: “This is unacceptable!” Pat Brown’s old Twainish speechwriter, a Texas radical by birth, brought it to my attention. Listen to him, he told me, he’s just saying this is unacceptable, period.

In late August, 1974, I found myself in Sacramento with what Cassidy would correctly define as a political “crony” at Posey’s Brown Derby, where politicians who would dine later at Frank Fats went to lunch. We had lunch with the City and County of San Francisco lobbyist, Jack Shelley, SF congressman since 1949 and mayor in the tumultuous period of 1964-1968. We didn’t talk about the election much. Jerry Brown had made it clear in so many ways that he wasn’t his father, now was not then, that it was obvious anyone tainted with political work for his father would be doing something else for a living after he was elected. It was hard on younger men like ourselves, but there were sneaking suspicions buried inside us that he was right. I knew from relatives that Jack had been a courageous labor leader in the 1930s, he was good on civil rights and wasn’t insanely pro-development. Propping his walker against the wall, the waiter having already provided his first martini, Jack launched into the two-hour story about the cement contract for Candlestick Park, which explained everything anyone needed to know about postwar SF politics. I remember thinking it could have been written by James Joyce. The names, dates, deals, campaigns, and the monetary figures swirled through his story, dots mysteriously and compellingly connected, yet in the matter-of-fact telling of ordinary political chat, that it took me a long time to admit I couldn’t reconstruct it because I didn’t want to. The point of the story was that, “Fools names and fools faces are often found in public places.” Yet reading How the Irish Invented Slang, I was again reminded of Shelley’s tale. What Cassidy is calling “slang” in Shelley’s supreme command of the idiom became the choral voice of the people that fashioned a vocabulary for political analysis and action for taking of democratic power. Campaigning was a noble, heroic activity bringing out the best in a man. Governing, on the other hand, brought out the cement contract in the same man.

Mr. Shelley died within two weeks of telling two young almost strangers that long, musing rumination on public life in San Francisco.

The present conundrum has a lot to do with what rich Irishmen think. I suppose Reagan, an Irishman who preached the end of any kind of solidarity with neighborhood, ethnicity or unions in favor of full of anomic greedy individualism in a “city on the hill” resembling a Hobbesian snooker table, was no substitute for two assassinated Kennedys, but the name had the right ring to it.

A man in our childhood neighborhood of WWII veterans, their wives and us war babies, occasionally took us boys to a baseball diamond and to teach us how field grounders and shag flies to divert us from our weekend work: raiding the gang on the next block or defending our block against their raid. We little savages would not have understood what it meant that he’d shared a PT boat with John Kennedy, who would appoint him assistant secretary of the Navy when he became president. He was a fervent Kennedy rooter in town and a successful builder living in Pacific Heights by the 60’s. I am sure he, like most of Irish San Francisco, was devastated by the two assassinations. I know that after Bobby’s death, political headquarters in the city were halls of the walking dead all summer. Late that election season, I sat among a group of pols on a conference call with Larry O’Brien, who was managing Humphreys’ campaign in an attempt to shorten the wake for Bobby. O’Brien said that people were at last awakening and if the election were to be held at the end of November rather than on its first Tuesday, the Democrat would win.

Cyr and her miraculous Rolodex were in the Mayor’s Office the day Dan White assassinated both Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk (probably the first openly gay elected politician in the nation). White had resigned from the board of supervisors five days earlier to try to save his potato vending business on Pier 39, to feed his nine children. Moscone had said publicly he would reappoint him if he changed his mind. If we are to believe the contemporary account, White went to the mayor’s office through a basement window, armed, to ask for his job back one last time.

The lame SF district attorney, a dude from Escalon who’d passed through a few years of Carnuba wax-and-polish in DC, did not even try that case. His connections were mainly with John Tunney (the dumber son of Gene, who beat Jack Dempsey in the famous “long count” fight in 1927) a Riverside congressman who served a term as US Senator. So, White served five years of a seven-year sentence for manslaughter due to an excellent defense establishing diminished capacity – and due to the diminished capacity of the prosecution. White’s lawyers successfully portrayed him as too “depressed” to deal with the “dirty politics at city hall.”

Interpretation: the one conservative supervisor elected betrays his supporters, voters in his district as well as funders, by quitting. The police chief himself urges White to ask for his job back. Meanwhile, liberal supervisors lobby liberal Moscone to appoint a liberal replacement.
In one of the flipflops that characterize her politics, Supervisor Dianne Feinstein urged him to ask for his seat back, which Moscone was eventually persuaded to refuse to give him. When, after a year of parole in LA because authorities feared he might be killed if he returned to SF, as mayor, Feinstein urged him not to return. He did return and killed himself soon after he did.

Detective Frank Falzon, one of two who took his confession, told the press in 1998 that he’d met with White shortly before he killed himself and White told him the murders were premeditated and that he’d planned to kill Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver as well, along with state Assemblyman Willie Brown, who White said was “masterminding the whole thing.” He killed a Sicilian, a fine liberal with radical edges, who had been a superb state Senate majority leader, and had been a USF basketball star. He killed a gay man who was one of the most decent supervisors the city ever had. He wanted to kill a female Jewish liberal and a Black assemblyman who became the longest serving assembly speaker in history on pure political ability. Willie wasn’t always an easy man to like but he made good deals and kept his word. How odd it was that White didn’t go gunning for Rep. Phil Burton, D-SF, whose faction had just taken near total control of City Hall by legal means after 20 years of hard political slogging against the elder Irish machine in town. It’s not that Willie couldn’t have finagled the whole thing, but he wouldn’t have without consultation with Mr. Burton. That was simply not done while Mr. Burton, a veteran of both WWII and Korea, was alive. If White had tried it, Burton would probably have paralyzed him with bursts of profane outrage to the effect that the little man could not seriously imagine doing such a thing, and crammed White’s little pistol down his throat, bellowing at him all the while: “What the f— do you mean resigning your seat? You have no respect for the public offices people fought and died to create! You have no respect for the process, for government, for the people!” Extracting the pistol from White’s throat, Burton might have said, “Now, go back to your family, take care of them and never darken the door of government again for the rest of your life.”

What was “the whole thing”? A conspiracy against good, clean Irish-American murderers, real life “Dirty Harry (1971)” Callahans like himself?
The hoodoo had come off the city’s violent streets into City Hall through a basement window.

There’s no connection between the following and the city’s Irish-American politics. It happened nine years before White killed Moscone and Milk and five years before Shelley told two young strangers the story that summed up his life. And besides, you would have had to have been there to see the rookie cop from Ireland in his new uniform and you would have had to have heard his voice and seen his face and his tears of frustration under the street light.

In the old Indian Center on 16th Street near Valencia right across the street where they gunned down the painter’s union leader, Dow Wilson, three years earlier, a drunk from the Colville reservation attacked me for having personally stolen his language. Fleeing downstairs from the Center (torched a few months later), I stepped on the blood of a stabbed Indian, quietly dying on the sidewalk as this young cop, somebody’s relative imported from the Emerald Isle, yelled at the Indians passing by: “Why don’t you take care of him? He’s one of your own!”

Evidently, no one passing by was of the stabbed man’s tribe. So he died, with the young Irish cop, bewildered and outraged, yelling at the indifferent crowd of relocated Native Americans before the ambulance arrived to haul off the stiff.

No, buddy, it ain’t right. It doesn’t make much sense at all. But a river of Irish slang runs through it and without it, it’s possible we would not be able to tell tales about any parts of the whole ruckus that we live.
An especially talented political campaign professional once confessed in my hearing that his ancestry was “psychotic shanty Irish.” Translation: pity me, I really can’t control myself; fear me, I really can’t control myself; though my background is lamentable, it has its uses in politics; I’ll get you if you don’t get me first.

Then there was Pete McCloskey, former Marine hero, former congressman, co-author of the Endangered Species Act, opponent of President Richard Nixon in the 1972 New Hampshire primary. McCloskey, in his mid-70s, came down to San Joaquin County in 2006 and, although he didn’t defeat Rep. Richard Pombo, then chair of the House Resources Committee, in the Republican primary, he beat him up so badly with an old-fashioned campaign of meeting, listening and talking, that a nobody Democrat from the Bay Area beat him in the general. This rookie congressman, Jerry McNerney, is also fierce and can be counted on to stand adamantly for absolutely nothing in order to maintain his seat.

The words Cassidy brings up are mere flashes that restore the character and velocity of our history. Back when Shelley was mayor and Love’s summer occurred, followed by the Walpurgisnacht of Speed, many of us were attracted – like the old welterweight Battling Hippie –- to the Zen master Suzuki, his quiet meditation center in the middle of the Fillmore District, and to Dogen, the founder of his school of Zen, who described consciousness as we could understand it –- occasional lightning flashes in the night.

BILL HATCH lives in Modesto, California. He can be reached at: wmmhatch@sbcglobal.net

 

 

Bill Hatch lives in the Central Valley in California. He is a member of the Revolutionary Poets Brigade of San Francisco. He can be reached at: billhatch@hotmail.com.

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