Tonawanda News

December 2, 2013

BOOK NOOK: Not much changes in the political climate

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — You may wonder why state governments — how should I put this — sometimes tend to give the impression they seem to be corrupt, or at least occasionally resemble something of a murky swamp of dishonesty. Read a book that tells a story about New York’s, and that of William “Plain Bill” Sulzer, turn-of-the-last-century governor and the only one ever impeached in the state’s history, and you’ll wonder even more.

Jack O’Donnell’s “Eye of the Tiger” explains a slice of machine politics as it was, circa 1900-1915, Sulzer is undermined by Tammany Hall politics. A reform-minded congressman and governor is accused of diverting campaign contributions to buy investments for himself, accusations designed to get him out of the picture. Sulzer becomes an obstacle to the political machine, and is railroaded out of his elected office — he bravely came back, and was elected to the state assembly — on splinter-party tickets.

A good story. A typical story, a contemporary story if you could only include the cigar smoke, a cloak-and-dagger politics-as-usual story. Julius Caesar had similar problems. The book has insights for those unfamiliar with the situation, and that, in a way, is its saving grace.

O’Donnell has set up his narrative to read more like a mystery story than a history book, so the intrigue tends to be more palpable than the broad sweep of events. It should be noted that the author is a lobbyist by profession (and Canisius College and UB Law School graduate); involving himself in state politics likely comes naturally, and he has presented a book with the feeling of a fan’s notes disguised as a novel.

That’s not easy, incidentally. The bibliography suggests research was done, but the book is largely fact and interpretation offered in a page-turning, now-what style, which makes it less the definitive story of Tammany Hall’s influence on state politics and more a gateway book for readers, perhaps in high school, interested in this sordid, fascinating era of American history.

Clearly the author knows, and enjoys, his topic. Part of his full-time job is a legacy of the era of the book, however many reform attempts have come between then and now. Regrettably, it reads like a first-time attempt at a non-fiction book about a long, long single incident, the rise and fall of one man, Sulzer. A little context, who was doing what in other spheres of the decades in question, would have helped.

The end notes suggest heavy reliance on two sources, the New York Times and the official record of Sulzer’s impeachment, and yes, there’s the problem. If more sources were consulted — and there are hundreds of books on the topics; this reviewer has even read a few — O’Donnell’s version of the story may be easier to read.

On the other hand, as a machine politician would equivocate, “Bitten by the Tiger” is dense with fact, well explains a personal tragedy with characters straight out of Hollywood and is a cautionary tale for anyone with children who want to go into politics.

If politics is America’s ultimate spectator sport, as Spencer Tracy pointed out years ago in the 1958 film “The Last Hurrah,” a book such as this is like a visit to Cooperstown to see how it was done 100 years ago.

How it was done 100 years ago is as interesting and as contemptible as it’s done today. O’Donnell has not delivered a brilliant book here, but a very interesting one on a topic many Americans have only a skim-the-surface understanding.

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident and can be contacted at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.

• WHAT: "Bitten by the Tiger" • BY: Jack O'Donnell • PUBLISHER: Chapel Hill Press • GRADE: B