Category: Archive

For O’Dwyer, principle always outweighed the political cost

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jim Callaghan

Paul O’Dwyer’s legacy to New York can best be discovered in the dusty files of the state Supreme Court Building in Brooklyn. It is there you will find the papers relating to People vs. Gallishaw, a murder indictment from the 1960s that accused a 19-year-old black man of shooting a white man.

At a time when the death penalty was in force in this state, Paul O’Dwyer took the case and won an acquittal, thus saving the life of his client. It wasn’t a pretty time, and Paul was vilified by his fellow Irish, too many of whom were willing to suspend the Bill of Rights in exchange for a little more order in the streets. The case captured the O’Dwyer family’s zeitgeist; a hangman’s noose takes many forms and the Irish, given our history, should be in charge of defending those who Wolfe Tone called “the men of no property.”

Although O’Dwyer was a fierce Irish nationalist, with a great love for his native country, and was fascinated by the New York experience, he often found himself in disagreement with his fellow Irish immigrants. When the Brooklyn Hibernians passed a resolution denouncing the CBS radio network for bouncing the anti-Semitic ravings of Father Coughlin, Paul was the only dissenting vote. His unyielding defense of transit union leader Mike Quill, who was regularly being Red-baited by the Brooklyn diocese, found him as the defendant in a kangaroo court. He was on the verge of being thrown out of the Hibernians when he decided to pack it all up and move to Manhattan.

O’Dwyer summed up his philosophy of life in two words: fair play. He had seen too much of the marauding Black and Tans, knew all too well the story of how the Irish turned on Parnell. He was steeped in the history of the British pestilence that tried to destroy the culture. His love of the law, his unrelenting belief that relying on the Constitution would work things out, was how he lived every day of his life. It was only natural that when the freedom-fighters of the Irgun came to him for help, he would raise the cash to send weapons in an attempt to even the odds, then file legal briefs to get them acquitted when they were arrested. His staunch support of Isr’l, however, didn’t stop him from speaking out for the Palestinians when he viewed them as getting short shift.

One of Paul’s most honorable – and politically costly – attributes is that he resisted the urge to be a “denouncer.” I remember the story he told me about David Dubinsky, one of two ruler’s of the Liberal Party, who refused to endorse him unless he criticized Dubinsky’s former friends in the Communist Party. “I have no compulsion to hate communists,” he told the boss. “Because I never was one.” For this reason, the social democrats hated him and the New York Times never once endorsed him. He was too far left and independent for the Cold Warriors, too radical for the Irish and too Irish for the liberals, who never really believed that an Irish-Catholic could be anything but an acolyte of Cardinal Spellman and Joe McCarthy.

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Paul also believed that black political leaders were being urged, unfairly, to “denounce” the media’s demon of the week. One day in the mid-1970s I was riding with him in a car with Percy Sutton, who was then the Manhattan Borough President. Sutton was exasperated because he was getting five calls a day from reporters asking him to denounce the Nigerian leader Idi Amin. Paul’s advice was simple but powerful. He told his close friend that he should make up a list of people who he would like white politicians to denounce and then challenge them: “I’ll do it if you go first.” He gave the same advice years later when Minister Farrakhan arrived on the scene.

Paul immediately saw the struggle for American civil rights as identical to the aspirations of nationalists in the six occupied counties. In this view, he was very much alone among his Irish-American political compatriots, and he paid for it at the polls. He was more than bemused when he saw the young idealists of Derry and Belfast singing” We Shall Overcome” in 1968 and was thrilled when Nelson Mandela walked out of prison and said “Now, it’s time to free Ireland.”

His gift to our city of immigrants was his consistency on all issues. When he took a case or a cause, he never cared how many votes it might cost him. The morality of the issue was what mattered. That’s why he offered his law office in 1966 to Al Lowenstein and others to plan the dump-Johnson campaign and to organize a movement against what he considered the debasement of our society because of what we were doing in Vietnam. Young people flocked to his 1968 Senate campaign because he stared down bullies like Mayor Daley, a fellow Irish Catholic, and his anarchist police force.

As much as the Paul O’Dwyer legacy stands alone, it is, in some ways, intertwined with Bill O’Dwyer’s achievements.

Paul told me that he and Bill, mayor from 1946 to 1950, would get into arguments and not talk to each other for weeks. Many times, they were on opposite sides of political battles, but Paul was his brother’s friend and close advisor and was involved in all his campaigns. Their story is one of the marvels of America: two brothers who believed in the promise our city held out. One became a sachem of Tammany Hall and rose to become the mayor of the nation’s most diverse and populous city, while the other was a reformer in his soul and sided with the outcasts of “correct” political society. Both saw government as a tool to help the poor, to create jobs, to reduce racial tensions, to create a more livable city while making sure that the “Golden Door” in the Emma Lazarus poem remained open for those of a different color or those who practiced a different religion.

The monuments to both are found in our city – a good town that doesn’t always do the right thing, but is now home to millions of newcomers who see it as a mecca. Part of the reason for that is due in no small measure to the life’s work of the boys from Bohola. Paul’s marks are in courtrooms all across the land, from Harrisburg to Hattiesburg, from Harlan County to Fort Worth to Foley Square. Bill’s are more visible: the hundreds of thousands of housing units for the poor and middle class, bus garages to serve the city’s workers, verdant parks, ferry terminals, the United Nations, Kennedy airport, schools, firehouses and playgrounds in every neighborhood. His accomplishments put the lie to the sarcasm of the snide pundits who say Bill left office under a cloud, that he was a do-nothing mayor compared to LaGuardia.

He and his kid brother Paul embraced their new home and gave back more than most of us could ever dream of doing.

(Jim Callaghan was a special assistant to City Council President O’Dwyer from 1974-77. He is currently at work on O’Dwyer’s biography.)

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