The great mirthologist: Why Hugh Carey was one of the best governors ever

Hugh Carey in the dugout. (Laguardia and Wagner archives.)
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Terry Golway

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Hugh Carey had a word for a certain style of politics. He called it “mirthology.” He applied it to one of his political heroes, Al Smith, the great New York governor in the 1920s who was quick with a disarming, humorous story or a witty comeback to a political attack.

Carey admired many things about Al Smith, but you got the sense, talking with him for even five minutes, that what he admired most was Smith’s sense of joy—F.D.R. famously called him “the happy warrior.” The guy loved politics and loved being around politicians. He loved telling stories.

Al Smith would have had a blast with Hugh Carey, the two-term governor of New York who died over the weekend at the age 92. Smith would have regaled him with stories about the legendary Tammany figures who took a kid from the Lower East Side and made him a presidential candidate. And Carey would have had lots to tell Smith about Brooklyn politics in the 1950s, about campaigning for John F. Kennedy in 1960, and about the back-room talks that did nothing less than save the city they both loved in the 1970s.

Hugh Carey’s obituaries rightly paid tribute to the extraordinary role he played when the city of his birth faced its greatest crisis of the 20th century. They also took note of his successful career in Congress, and the heroic role he played as an Army officer in Europe during World War II. They recounted his childhood in Brooklyn, the story of a scrappy Irish-American kid who made good and who managed to keep his humor, his faith, and his sense of joy despite unspeakable personal tragedies.

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Missing from these accounts—because you really had to be there—was Carey’s voice, the gleam in his eye when he told a story, the pitch-perfect timing that made him one of New York’s great political storytellers during his long post-gubernatorial career.

Carey spent hours telling me stories several years ago, when we were in discussions about a book project. I felt like a contemporary version of William Riordan, the political reporter who took notes while the colorful Tammany Hall politician George Washington Plunkitt delivered tutorials in the art of practical politics in the opening years of the 20th century. Like Carey, Plunkitt was a wonderful observer of people. If you want to succeed in politics, Plunkitt said, just study human nature.

Hugh Carey knew that people loved good stories, and he told them well. I never did check the veracity of some of them; for example, about how a Kennedy loyalist working for Lyndon Johnson got a District of Columbia stadium renamed for Robert F. Kennedy despite his boss’ violent opposition. (It was a great and touching story. Not sure if it was true.) He told stories about campaigning with both Kennedys in the early 1960s, about working together with the likes of Felix Rohatyn, David Rockefeller, and many union leaders to prevent New York City’s seemingly inevitable bankruptcy in 1975, and about being courted by Democrats and Republicans alike during his eventful years as an elder statesman.

He told these stories, even the serious ones, with a great narrative style and a fine appreciation for irony. Those qualities are not always associated with members of the political class, unless, like Carey and Plunkitt, they have studied human nature as well as they study election results.

Carey admired Al Smith not only because of the mirth his predecessor brought to his profession, but for the values he embodied as well. Carey described himself to me as an “Al Smith Democrat.” The phrase very likely would mean nothing to most members of the state legislature, where Smith rose to fame, or to the New York congressional delegation, of which Carey was a member through the 1960s. To me, it meant that Carey saw a bit of himself in the man who made New York a model of progressive government, who put in place a social safety net for the poor and vulnerable.

It was Carey’s lot in life to become governor at a time when bills came due. He managed to persuade the banks that he was serious about making systemic changes to New York City’s finances, but he did so without ripping apart the social compact which Al Smith wrote, and which F.D.R. borrowed from to create the New Deal.

Like Smith, Carey demanded accountability in government. Like Smith, Carey was a serious political professional. And like Smith, the guy was never too busy to tell a good story.

Historians and political nerds sometimes argue over who was the greatest New York governor of the 20th century. It’s sort of like trying to figure out who was the century’s greatest Yankee. Albany was graced by the likes of Smith, Franklin Roosevelt, Herbert Lehman, Thomas E. Dewey, Nelson Rockefeller, Carey and Mario Cuomo, and they put in more than a half-century of service from 1918 to Cuomo’s departure in 1994.

There are people who argue that Smith topped the list, even ahead of F.D.R. Carey was one of those people.

On this day, at this moment, I’d make a case for Hugh Leo Carey, savior of New York City and one of the political game’s greatest mirthologists.

Terry Golway is director of the Kean University Center for Politics, History, and Policy.