Thomas Fleming: Receives lifetime achievement award

[HNN Editor: Next Saturday Mr. Fleming, a member of the board of directors of HNN, will receive the Governor Richard Hughes award for lifetime achievement in writing history from the NJ Historical Commission. His planned speech appears below.]

This award means a lot to me. Those words, Lifetime Achievement, stir long thoughts.

I remember one of the first times I spoke here in Trenton. Governor Brendan Byrne was supposed to introduce me. We talked offstage for a while before the program started. Then the governor strolled onstage and said: “I was going to tell you a lot about this guy but I realized it would be superfluous. The second he opens his mouth, you’ll know he’s from Jersey City.”

Like many things Governor Byrne says, that was good for a laugh but at a deeper level it said a lot more. In this case, it summed up a good chunk of my identity as a writer. Coming from Jersey City in the era of Frank Hague, with my father, Teddy Fleming, one of the Big Man’s right hand men, induced a sense of dislocation in my psyche – a feeling that I didn’t really belong to the rest of New Jersey or the United States of America.
It started the day I met Frank Hague for the first time. I was seven years old. My father steered me around a huge puddle and led me toward a big black limousine. We were in the parking lot of Roosevelt Stadium on opening day. A tall guy in a derby hat was getting into the car. “Mayor,” my father said. “I’d like you meet my son.”

I gazed up at the Mayor and held out my small hand. He mashed it to what I was sure was a permanent pulp and glared at me as if he had just caught me scalping box seat tickets. “Your old man is a hell of a guy,” he growled.

That was the day my sense of dislocation was born. By the age of ten I was a passionate supporter of the Hague Organization. I had the basic philosophy down cold. Us against Them. Us against the lousy penny pinching Irish-Catholic hating Protestants in the rest of New Jersey. They were trying to drive us back to the days when being Irish meant you dug ditches and lived on handouts when the jobs ran out. There was nothing they wouldn’t do to us – no trick was too dirty, no lie was too big -- which meant it was perfectly okay to play the same dirty game against them – and do it ten times better – tougher, smarter.

As I grew older I realized this wasn’t a winning formula. After World War II, when Italians, Poles, Jews and blacks stopped taking orders from the Irish, it wasn’t even a winning ticket. But I didn’t know what to do about it – until I flew to Independence Missouri and met Harry S. Truman in 1970. After reading my biography of Thomas Jefferson, The Man from Monticello, he had selected me to write a book about him in collaboration with his daughter, Margaret.

On my first night in Independence, the president poured me a dark bourbon and water and fixed one for himself and his wife Bess, and Margaret. “Young man,” he said, with a somewhat guarded smile. “There’s only one thing I don’t know about you. Have you always been a Democrat?”

“Mr. President,” I said. “My father was leader of the Sixth Ward in Frank Hague’s Jersey City. No one in the family has ever voted anything but the straight ticket.”

“That’s what I wanted to hear!” Mr. Truman said.

I thought it was going to be old home week. Here was a man who had come out of the Kansas City Pendergast machine. But I gradually discovered I was wrong. Harry Truman had moved beyond us against them politics. Not only the kind that Pendergast sold, but another kind that had left terrible scars on our national soul. Truman’s mother was an unreconstructed Confederate. One day just before World War I, he wore his blue National Guard uniform home from a training session. “Harry,” Momma Truman said. “This is the last time I want to see that uniform in this house.”

In 1946, when he was president, Truman heard about honorably discharged black veterans getting beaten up in Mississippi and Alabama when they came home wearing their uniforms. He told his White House staff that wasn’t going to happen in the United States while he was president.

In 1948, he proposed a civil rights program that was so tough, the Dixicrats walked out of the Democratic Convention. Someone asked Strom Thurmond why he was so upset. Franklin Roosevelt had been saying the same things when he was in the White House. “I know that,” Thurmond said. “But Truman means it.”

How did he do it? He never went near a college. I found out in those weeks in Independence. He did it by reading history. By getting a perspective on what America -- and the rest of the world – was all about. I decided then and there to do the same thing.
That enabled me to appreciate – and applaud -- a lot of things that had changed and were changing in New Jersey. The man whose name is on this award, Governor Richard Hughes, proved Irish Americans could think and act and lead on behalf of all the people in the state. Brendan Byrne proved it again, with that marvelous ingredient we Jersey City guys used to admire more than anything else in a politician -- nerve.

That’s what it took to pass an income tax in a state that didn’t pay any taxes worth mentioning in the first century of its existence and paid as little as possible thereafter. Now, a new mayor in Newark, Cory Booker, thinks it’s time to start leading black Americans with ideas and vision. Even in Hudson County, where ethnic and racial politics sometimes still resembles a crowded squirrel cage, Senator Robert Menendez has proven that an ethnic American can appeal to the whole state.

Meanwhile, thanks to getting a lot of the history in my head, I got a perspective on Frank Hague and my father and their generation that enabled me to explain them to myself and a lot of other people -- without minimizing their flaws. On a larger scale, history has helped me to see that there have always been things wrong with America – but there has usually been someone like Harry Truman around with the courage and brains to put them right.

My current book, the Perils of Peace, is a good example of what I mean. It deals with the last two years of the American Revolution. It didn’t end with a bang. It ended with a bankrupt whimper. Congress was a collection of political zeros. They sent the army home without paying them, without even thanking them or giving them a victory parade. Instead they smeared the officers as greedy pigs because they wanted a pension after spending eight years ducking bullets.

Congress ignored a letter from George Washington, telling them that if they didn’t pay these men, he would understand what the word ingratitude really meant and it would embitter every moment of his future life. Numerous officers urged Washington to take over the government. There wasn’t another person in the country who had a following.
But this man remembered why we had fought for eight long exhausting years. Without saying a public word against Congress, he resigned his commission as lieutenant general and became a private citizen again, at the mercy of politicians he no longer admired or respected. I call it the greatest moment in American history. More than a thousand declarations of independence or constitutions, it affirmed what America was all about.

I think Richard Hughes would understand what I’m saying. So would my friend Brendan Byrne. So would my father. I think even Frank Hague would get the message.

Thanks again for this award.

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