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The Compleat Politician

Cabbages and Kings

By Alan H. Grossman

Big Jack Russell, 250-pound president of the Cleveland City Council and one of America's last--and most competent--political ward bosses, came to Harvard this week to teach "the kids" a few lessons in practical politics and, incidentally, to have his picture taken in a mortarboard, standing next to the Harvard drum. But the drum had already gone to New Haven.

Looking a bit pasty and sallow after a 600-mile flight from Cleveland, Russell was sitting at a small, littered table in the half-darkened cocktail bar of the Hotel Commander, drinking beer with a few reporters. It seemed obvious that The Big Man was marking time, waiting. Somewhat nervously, for something explainable important to him: a small dinner party with Professor Samuel H. Beer, chairman of the Government Department.

While waiting, Russell disinterestedly outlined his career. He grew up in East Cleveland's Hungarian Buckeye Road district, left school at sixteen, and played saxophone in his own jazz band. ("I called myself Jack Russell because the announcers couldn't pronounce my name.") "Doing odd jobs for East Cleveland politicians" followed and towards the end of the Depression, Russell was clearing $25,000 a year publishing four weekly throw-always at his Buckeye Press. "We had tremendous advertising," he said, "that explains the profit."

Putting aside his beer glass. Russell droned on: two defeats in City Council elections, then a 31 vote plurality on the third try, 14 years on the Council... this year he was elected with 82.5 per cent in primary vote. With his unspent campaign money, Russell hired a 27-piece gypsy orchestra and threw a "Night in Budapest:" for 650 people.

All during these years, Russell has been closely associated with Cleveland's top hoodlum and racketeer, Alex (Shondor) Birns, and one-times bingo king AlFlagel. He has also done "favors" for the his 36,000 registered electors ("I figure I do 1,000 favors a year"), and remembers the children in his ward with Christmas and zoo parties ("They grow up and become voters").

Now the ward politician from Buckeye Road had come to Cambridge, with well-formed ideas about practical politics, not political science.

Russell dropped his cigar into an ashtray, and donned his wide-brimmed gray fedora for the trip from the Commander Bar to the dining room.

He dined quickly but carefully, a white linen napkin spread on his lap, and dropped a few tablets of sacchrine into his black coffee. Professor Beer, who uses sugar and cream, put his napkin on the table and began to question Russell.

"Why are you a Democrat, Jack. Can you tell us?"

Russell really couldn't. He mumbled something about "it was handed down to me," and several times drew a thick manuscript from his pocket, offering to read pertinent passages from it. Beer stopped him, asking why he had gone into politics.

"Oh, he surroundings, people, the neighborhod." He asked Beer if he had ever been on television. Beer replied he had, on a national hookup.

"You know, professor, you're all right," Russell observed. "You should run for mayor. I know a butcher back in Cleveland who runs every year just to see how many friends he has. Why don't you run?" The political scientist declined.

"What do you want to do all your life? Be a professor?" Beer did.

The dinner ended, Russell lit his cigar, Beer donned his tyrolean, and the party walked to the Littauer lecture room.

Big Jack Russell delivered his lecture to a student audience antagonized by the presence of cameras and television technicians. He said nothing of significance and studiously avoided answering questions. Possibly feeling obligated to do so, Russell told his audience that "I'm not a political boss, I'm a civic leader."

This remains to be seen. But boss or leader, Russell has little to teach the "kids" at this point.

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