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Woodrow Wilson As I Know Him
Chapter II - Doing The Political Chores
by Tumulty, Joseph P.


For the young man who wishes to rise in the politics of a great city there is no royal road to preferment but only a plain path of modest service uncomplainingly rendered. Of course, there seem to be exceptions to this rule. At times it is possible for the scion of a great family to rise to temporary distinction in politics without a preliminary course in the school of local politics, for as a Democratic boss once said to me: "Great family names are fine window-dressers," but in my own experience I have seen the disappointing end of careers thus begun and have found that sometimes after a great name has been temporarily used to meet certain political emergencies, the would-be politician is quickly thrust aside to make way for the less pretentious but more capable man. There is nothing permanent or lasting about a place in politics gained in this adventitious way. Of course, there sometimes come to high office men from military careers, or men, like the distinguished subject of this book, from fields apparently remote from practical politics, but such successes are due to an appealing personal force, or to exceptional genius which the young aspirant had better not assume that he possesses. The general rule holds good that a political apprenticeship is as necessary and valuable as an industrial apprenticeship.

My first official connection with politics was as the financial secretary of the Fifth Ward Democratic Club of Jersey City. My father had told me that if I intended to play an active part in politics, it would be necessary to begin modestly at the bottom of the ladder, to do the political chores, as it were, which are a necessary part of ward organization work. I recall those days with singular pleasure, for my work gave me an unusual opportunity to meet the privates in the ranks and to make friendships that were permanent.

The meetings of the Club were held each week in a modest club house, with part of the meeting given over to addresses made by what were then considered the leading men in the Democratic party. It is queer how the average political worker favours the senator, or the ex-judge, or the ex-Congressman, as a speaker on these occasions. Ex-Congressman Gray, of Texas (I doubt whether there ever was a congressman by that name), would often be the headliner and he could be depended upon to draw a crowded and enthusiastic house. The knowledge and experience I gained at these inspirational meetings were mighty helpful to me in the political life I had carved out for myself. I found that when you had convinced these plain, everyday fellows that, although you were a college man, you were not necessarily a highbrow, they were willing to serve you to the end. It was a valuable course in a great university. It was not very long until I was given my first opportunity, in 1896, to make my first political speech in behalf of Mr. Bryan, then the Democratic candidate for President. I was not able at that time to disentangle the intricacies of the difficult money problems, but I endeavoured, imperfectly at least, in the speeches I made, to lay my finger on what I considered the great moral issue that lay behind the silver question in that memorable campaign--the attempt by eastern financial interests to dominate the Government of the United States.

After my apprenticeship, begun as secretary of the Fifth Ward Democratic Club, an incident happened which caused a sudden rise in my political stock. At a county convention I was given the opportunity of making the nominating speech for the Fifth Ward's candidate for street and water commissioner--a bricklayer and a fine fellow--who was opposing the machine candidate. It was a real effort on my part and caused me days and nights of worry and preparation. Indeed, it seemed to me to be the great moment of my life. I vividly recall the incidents of what to me was a memorable occasion. I distinctly remember that on the night of the Convention, with the delegates from my ward, I faced an unfriendly and hostile audience, our candidate having aroused the opposition of the boss and his satellites. While I felt that the attitude of the Convention was one of opposition to our candidate, there was no evidence of unfriendliness or hostility to myself as the humble spokesman of the Fifth Ward. When I stood up to speak I realized that I had to "play up" to the spirit of generosity which is always latent in a crowd such as I was addressing. I believe I won, although my candidate, unfortunately, lost. My Irish buoyancy and good nature brought me over the line. I felt that the audience in the gallery and the delegates on the floor were with me, but unfortunately for my cause, the boss, who was always the dominating influence of the Convention, was against me, and so we lost in the spirited fight we made. In this first skirmish of my political career I made up my mind to meet defeat with good grace and, if possible, smilingly, and no sore spot or resentment over our defeat ever showed itself in my attitude toward the men who saw fit to oppose us. Evidently, the boss and his friends appreciated this attitude, for it was reported to me shortly after the Convention that I was to be given recognition and by the boss's orders would soon be placed on the eligible list for future consideration in connection with a place on the legislative ticket.

One lesson I learned was not to be embittered by defeat. Since then I have seen too many cases of men so disgruntled at being worsted in their first battles that their political careers ended when they should have been just beginning.

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