Who You Calling a Republican?


Republicans were anathema on the Irish waterfront. When John F. Kennedy was inaugurated fifty years ago this week, Irish waterfronts from the West Side of Manhattan to Portland, Maine (where many dockworkers remained Irish-language speakers) celebrated, less because of JFK’s ethnicity or religion—on the waterfront everybody was Catholic–than the Democracy’s restoration to its rightful stewardship of the national body politic.

The Port of New York Authority had worked doggedly in the late 1940s and early 1950s to remove mobbed up stevedoring firms–and the hiring-foreman gangsters with whom they colluded–from the PA’s recently-acquired piers in Newark and Hoboken (yeah, I know; it would take another two decades before the “bi-state agency” added “New Jersey” to its masthead). The Port Authority reasoned—and Pete Corridan ardently concurred—that rank and file dockworkers would readily embrace the move as a giant step toward union democracy not to mention enhanced security of life and limb.

Yet the rank and file quickly and vociferously denounced the Port Authority and its nefarious works. Why? Because of the alleged influence of Republican politicos at the agency: that’s why. I was surprised and dismayed to learn this, surely in part because I’m no great fan of the Grand Old Party, and even an ungrounded allegation that my guy Pete Corridan was in cahoots with characters like Thomas E. Dewey, the ex-crime-busting, twice-losing GOP candidate for the Presidency (classic headline notwithstanding), took a bit o’ wind from my heroic narrative’s sails. Yet it was in fact Dewey who as New York governor collaborated with Corridan and the PA to help toss the International Longshoremen’s Association out of the port, if not out of the labor movement entirely.

My tender feelings were much less important, ultimately, than the stories that slowly disclosed themselves via archival materials, particularly the letters from dockworkers to Pete Corridan imploring: leave us alone; beat it; you don’t speak for us, turned around collar or no turned around collar. There is nothing more humbling to an opinionated historian than an archival collection loaded with contradictory evidence; it speaks in voices most forceful. And as our friend Carlo R. might say, that’s the job of work we’ve chosen to do, sifting through then discerning from the evidence before us. And from those mountains of archival materials are the best and truest stories sculpted.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Who You Calling a Republican?

  1. Louise Mowder

    That is why you are a great historian – you go where the facts ab=nd testimonies led you. You have your politics, but you know thwm and can “bracket” them to do your research.

    Nowadays, a lot of “histories” are written by people who know what they believe, and aren’t going to let any contradictory facts get in the way, g*oddamit! Newsmax gives these books away with membership.

    In 100 years, they will be as dead as Howells’ biography of Hannibal Hamlin. Your history will still be read – because it’s honest, accurate, fully sourced, and immensely readable.

    So give yourself a big round of applause, Jim.

  2. Thanks Louise I’m on a Kennedy thing this week for the obvious reasons and one less obvious we’ll come around to by end of this little cycle. You too kind; what a blessing re-connecting with you shows there’s no lost decades…

  3. Jim

    JFK, if alive today and running for an elected office, would not be welcomed in the Democrat party due to his leanings. He would be considered to far to the center!

  4. Jeff Marlett

    Great stuff. The Irish waterfront up the Hudson (i.e., Albany) disliked Dewey, too. Republicans have an odd role as reformers in Albany city politics (the state’s another matter), if only because they’re so consistently on the outside looking in.

  5. NJ once had progressive Republicans; now we don’t
    Hi jeff Happy New year!

  6. Louise Mowder

    We still have what passes for “Progressive Republicans” these days. They just keep themselves far out of the public eye, as they always have.

    But absolutely *none* of them run for office. Why should they? Millicent Fenwick would be Tea-Partied as the worst of the RINOs. Who needs the hassle? Let the hoi polloi tear each other’s eyes out over the scraps that are left here. The Progressive Republicans are looking for new digs outside of the US.

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