Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics

Terry Golway. Norton/Liveright, $29.95 (400p) ISBN 978-0-87140-375-9

New York’s Tammany Hall long symbolized urban corruption and boss politics, satirized memorably by cartoonist Thomas Nast and condemned by WASP “clean” government reformers. An unjust verdict, historian and author Golway (Irish Rebel: John Devoy and America’s Fight for Ireland’s Freedom) argues convincingly in this headlong narrative. Gotham’s classic Democratic machine, which can stand in for many others since then, was less a corrupt organization than an effective political vehicle of ethnic, especially Irish-American, aspirations. Golway’s take isn’t new, but never has the story been told so well or with greater strength. Yes, Tammany members and followers sometimes used strong-arm street methods and vote-buying to get their way, and New York’s Irish repaid the anti-Catholicism they encountered with equally ugly anti-black racism. But Tammany, usually ably led, even by the notorious Boss Tweed, eventually put New York solidly in the Democratic camp, got Al Smith elected governor, helped elect F.D.R. president, ultimately proving so successful at integrating the city’s ethic groups that, by the 1970s, it was defunct. Like many narrative histories, Golway’s has no clear point of view save its basic argument. Though not unaware of debates among historians and political scientists, he simply ignores them in the interest of storytelling. A pity, for though he winningly makes his case, he doesn’t broaden it out into the story of the nation’s 20th-century transformation. Agent: John Wright. (Mar.)