WASHINGTON – As the nation remembers the assassinated President John F. Kennedy, it’s an opportunity to recall one more time a scholarly but enigmatic Buffalo man who played a key role in making him president: Erie County Democratic Chairman Peter J. Crotty.
Kennedy and Crotty in their own spheres inspired a whole generation of Irish politicians, mostly Democrats, to spurn the century-old image of the grasping, immigrant boss for that of the selfless public servant.
But just below the surface of their careers there lodged also the bitter divide within Democratic ranks as to whether any obedient Catholic could be a true liberal.
Adding to JFK’s burdens was the reputation of his father, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, as being soft on Hitler when Kennedy was envoy to England, and for his notorious 1940 comment in the Boston Globe that democracy may be finished in the United States.
This earned the Kennedy clan the deep enmity of President Franklin Roosevelt’s widow, Eleanor, and the disdain of two-time presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson and the so-called liberal “reformers” in New York City.
Robert Crotty, Peter’s son, a trial lawyer in New York City, said his father had been a longtime friend of the ambassador. The Erie County chairman for 11 years, ending in 1965, Crotty died in 1992.
At the 1956 national convention, Crotty nominated JFK to be Stevenson’s running mate, but was blocked by many of these same liberal forces. The same crowd was said to be responsible for undercutting Crotty’s own campaign for state attorney general in 1958.
Strong ideological feelings were boiling below the surface. Robert Crotty pointed to an angry rebuke to the liberals written by an emerging Irish Catholic loyalist, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later U.S. senator. Francis Barry, in his book “Scandal of Reform,” quoted Moynihan blasting liberals for shunning Crotty, who was “a man of intellect, a diligent student of Catholic social theory, a formidable labor lawyer and a passionate believer in racial equality.” Moynihan said the liberals’ resentment of Crotty was not political but “visceral,” leaving the meaning of that to the reader.
Again at the 1960 national convention, the same liberals, including Mrs. Roosevelt and former Gov. Herbert Lehman, wanted to stop Kennedy’s nomination, according to Arthur M. Schlesinger’s “A Thousand Days.” As he did four years earlier, Crotty stepped in and, with Bronx leader Charley Buckley, carried the New York delegation for Kennedy in a tight convention against a boomlet for Stevenson and a surge for then Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson.
So large did Crotty figure in the Kennedy clan after that, according to a Drew Pearson column in December 1960, Ambassador Kennedy ordained that Crotty should be made state chairman. The president-elect summoned the sachems of the state to his Georgetown residence and so ordered. But Chairman Michael H. Prendergast, backed by Tammany and the “reformers,” defied the ambassador and the president himself. Crotty endured and helped elect Robert Kennedy U.S. senator in 1964.
Many stories persist that Crotty relinquished the county chairmanship in 1965 hoping he would become an ambassador or federal judge. But history suggests another “visceral” reaction, that of then President Johnson toward the Kennedys, made that impossible.
Crotty did encourage a new breed of Irish Democrats to run for public office. Supreme Court Justice William B. Lawless, later dean of Notre Dame Law School, Federal Judge John Curtin, former District Attorney Edward C. Cosgrove and many others provided Buffalo with its own brief “Camelot.” But over the years, the idea of the traditional Catholic politician having a home in the Democratic Party evaporated. Perhaps Pope Francis can solve that.