Last Tuesday, Albert L. “Dapper” O’Neil died in a nursing home in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury. He was 87. He had served 14 terms as a Boston city councilor. Local radio talk show Howie Carr spent an entire show reminiscing about the Dapper, the last living link to old-style Boston politics — an old photo shows O’Neil being personally congratulated for his first elective win by James Michael Curley.
Everybody loved the Dapper — no, not quite true. The Beacon Hill Yankees tended to look down on him as a Neanderthal. But Dapper himself loved what he did. As Carr pointed out, he never owned property, never had a bank account, and had, until recent years, never raised any money for campaigns.
Dapper never calculated anything. He knew what he liked, knew what he didn’t like, and said so. He loved doing favors for people and didn’t ask for anything in return. I saw him once, at the Bunker Hill Day parade in Charlestown. O’Neil sat on the back deck of a convertible, surrounded by Gold Star mothers and little old ladies from Charlestown, all of them reaching out toward him, shouting, “Dappuh! Dappuh! Ovah heah!”
The American flags flew, the sun shone, the bands played, and Colonial-era re-enactors fired off volleys of blank musket fire. Dapper, the quintessence of an American politician of the old school, beamed as brightly as the summer sky. And these weren’t his constituents. Didn’t make any difference.
Half an hour later came marching by a stiff gray skinny scarecrow, all by himself, occasionally lifting an arm in a sketchy, phony wave.
“Who’s that?” one Townie asked another.
“Kerry,” his companion replied, in that scornful pronunciation only a Townie can muster.
I’VE TOLD THAT STORY before, when John Kerry ran for the Democratic nomination in 2003. I was wrong then when I predicted he wouldn’t even get past the primaries. I may be wrong now.
But it seems to me there’s a lesson to be learned from Dapper O’Neil about the sudden success of Mike Huckabee in this year’s Presidential primaries — allowing that the former Arkansas governor hasn’t won anything yet.
To me, it seems simple. Huckabee comes across as genuinely nice, charming, and engaging. Granted, traditional American politics has had its share of charming, engaging crooks — e.g., Bill Clinton, Huey Long. But charm wedded to populism has always proved a winning formula, and it’s been so long since we’ve seen it — beset as we are with political apparatchiks of cold heart and calculating mien — that, at least in Iowa, the voters appear to be giving it a good old-fashioned welcome.
General media coverage also overlooks something obvious to those of us raised in evangelical denominations. Baptists, Churches of Christ, and similar denominations have no hierarchy. The church organization does not educate, then place, pastors. Ministers have to build and sustain their own congregations.
If you hope to succeed in that field, you just about have to be a people person going in. Add to that the kind of education you get, in techniques of outreach and congregation-building, and you create a man (almost always a man) with a genuine touch for communicating with crowds.
He doesn’t have to field an ad campaign to prove he’s warm and likable. He just is.
Dapper O’Neil used to sing, sentimental songs like “If I Had My Life to Live Over” and funny songs like “The Irish Belly Dancer.” Just try to imagine any other current candidate recording songs. Mitt Romney? Hillary Clinton? Chris Dodd? Ron Paul?
No, in comparison to Dapper, most contemporary politicians are stiffs, as stiff as John Kerry in that long-ago parade.
Mike Huckabee sings. And he is no stiff. It remains to be seen how far he can go, but, for the moment, people are glad to see him. And it’s easy to see why.