The Best Show in Town
Nelson Howarth, Springfield citizen-mayor
March 27, 1971
Nelson O. Howarth was never a perfect politician, but then Springfield, of which he was mayor for a total of twelve years, was never a perfect town. I liked him, wrote about him, got to know him and his family a bit, and enjoyed a sporadic correspondence with two of his children for years. This appreciation of him appeared in Focus, an alternative weekly. (For the record, the by-line read, "J. Krohe.") I was still only semi-literate—for this version I cleaned up the commas left stranded outside of quote marks and the misuse of “its”—but the judgments are sound. See Sangamon Link for a good summary of Howarth's life and career.
What follows is an obituary of sorts, prompted by the unwelcome retirement of Nelson O. Howarth from local politics. I have never met the mayor, and have no connections with him, professional or political. I simply liked the man's style. It's a testimony to his personality and combative spirit that he was able to do what many jaundiced observers of local politics thought impossible—he made the day-to-day routine of city government consistently interesting. After April, things won't be quite the same.
Some weeks ago a [Illinois State] Journal columnist suggested, half in jest, that the city sell spectator tickets to the council sessions. It's often entertaining, he argued, and the city could make use of the increased revenues. The Tuesday city council meetings were indeed often the best show in town, and whether the issue was the payment of cost overruns to Simon Gordon, or clashes with John Hunter over payroll padding and advertising budgets at CWLP, or the celebrated wrangles with Bud Fitzpatrick over the development of the Lincoln Home area, Nelson Howarth was in the middle of it.
Occasionally the public was treated to reasonably rational debates on matters of public policy; at other times, over other issues, the discussions were less polite, and the atmosphere in the council chambers degenerated from one of legitimate controversy to that of a two-truck carnival sideshow.
Good or bad, the sessions bore the mark of Howarth's personality, both in fact and in the minds of the thousands of amused and outraged citizens who followed them. The mayor dominated the proceedings; compared to him, the other commissioners seemed as bland as the anemic furnishings of the council chamber itself. Commissioner [James] Dunham, for example, as earnest a guardian of the public trust as one might hope for, seemed hopelessly straight-laced. Commissioner [John] Hunter, that stolid practitioner of the patronage arts, was always a formidable opponent, but even he usually came in second to Howarth in their many heated disputes. [Frank] Madonia and [Joseph] Knox . . . well, they were just there. Most of the energy (and a good deal of the news copy ) emanated from the person of the mayor. When something got the mayor's goat (and the mayor's goat was always being got) he waded into the fray with displays of temper and rough-cut eloquence that were the cause of both amusement and consternation around the town for days. When advocating the passage of a contested resolution (or when trading verbal blows with an angry adversary) Howarth could be at once abrasive and conciliatory; he could be both bitterly abusive and wryly humorous. Even his most determined critics had to admit that he made things happen.
This was the Howarth that made the headlines, the Howarth that livened up many an otherwise dreary six o'clock newscast. To most of the people of the city, this was Nelson Howarth; his image, accurate or not was formed at these council meetings, and it left many people dissatisfied. He was too aggressive, they said, or he was a trouble-maker. And they were right, to a decree; there were many times when the mayor's righteous anger dissolved into mere petulance. But the flack that went up ever the council battles often obscured his real strength, and distorted the integrity of his basic concerns. For Howarth the mayor was concerned, deeply concerned, about a number of things. I remember specifically his vociferous defense of the rights of Springfield's black citizens, and his pushing for the alleviation of the lack of decent housing for the area's low-income families. The fact that he was never able to resolve such problems cannot justly be held against him; as a mayor under the commission form of government, he was a power more in name than fact. And I think it would be fair to say that no one felt that frustration more than the Mayor himself.
"Any man who's head of a government shouldn't let his temper get away from him. That's what was wrong with Harry Truman, and that's what's wrong with Howarth!" —a local resident
There is political virtue, I suppose, in the ability of a public official to maintain a controlled demeanor in the face of the myriad frustrations that dog him in the course of his duties. He knows that his public will forgive him a certain amount of private venality, and a rather larger amount of public stupidity, but the expression of genuine ire makes them nervous—the American voter expects elected officials to be above such prosaic passions. But governments (to rephrase a tired sentiment) are made of men and for men, and although that fact has long made cynical students of our politics uneasy, we ought not to forget that government in a democracy is, and should be, an intensely human institution. Any pretense, however comforting, that holders of public office are somehow exempt from the passions of men leads to treacherous miscalculations. Besides, our lives and fortunes are daily subjected to a dozen mindless outrages from sources public and private . . . and a capacity for legitimate and specific anger, a capacity, if you will, for sustained public outrage, is desirable in a leader. Or so it seems to me.
"What do I think of Nelson Howarth? He's an ass—always was, in my book." —another local resident
The mayor always managed to make a lot of people mad. The man in the street sheds his usual reticence on public issues when it comes to expressing an opinion about the mayor; few other subjects, in fact, elicit such dependably energetic responses. Local people tend either to admire him or hate him; just as there is little equivocation in his public character, so is there little equivocation in the public's reaction to him. There is still uncomfortable truth to the ancient maxim of politics that warns that when you dare to put your foot down you're liable to step on somebody's toes, and Howarth did just that many times. Whether one agrees with him or not is beside the point in this regard. The willingness to take on a fight, in an era when mediocrity and indecision so often cloaks itself in a spirit of "accommodation," is political courage of the first order.
About a year ago I wrote a letter to Mayor Howarth. A life-long Republican, Howarth had just announced his support for Adlai Stevenson III in the race then shaping up for the U.S. Senate. The endorsement was only a mild surprise—Howarth had long enjoyed a reputation as a political maverick. What made his stand commendable was not merely that, he had violated on of the most precious tenets of party fealty, but that he had done so in the name of a more intelligent and humane politics. He had little to gain and a lot to lose by bucking the governor, and any doubts he might have had about Mr. Smith's qualifications or tactics could have been safely concealed with a tactful and prudent silence—he made the announcement anyway. I wrote him a letter commending him for his endorsement, and received this reply:
The political life of an independent is about like the life of a Coho Salmon, preordained to a cycle of defeat.
The reason for this is that a political independent rejects the idea of becoming a part of a "gang", taking orders from the boss, and obliging himself to make statements that he does not believe merely because it pushes up his political party and pushes down the other political party; and so, the independent goes along attempting to live by the statutory rules instead of the political rules and supporting, publicly, persons in either political party that he thinks best qualified. But, he has to pay for this independence by being damned by the other political party when he chooses some candidate not in their party; and he himself, cannot aspire to any important office because he can hardly get through the primary elections too often controlled by the party members who look upon their political party as a religious order instead of an instrument for civic good.
Readers will note that I have devoted little attention to the more mundane aspects of the Howarth administrations. The detailed and bothersome specifics of programs and policies are appropriate to the study of government, but I'm increasingly suspicious of their relevance to the study of politics. Howarth's effect on the city's political life can't be measured in the sum total of ordinances passed or council votes tallied; his achievements over the past dozen years or so lie on a slightly different plane. In a sense, he helped keep city government alive, partly with imagination, partly by determination and partly by astute showmanship. If his motto seems to be something like "If you can't make them care, at least make them mad," it’s because it often was. It may be a poor substitute for citizenly concern, but at its worst it's better than apathy, and he did make them care as often as he made them mad. Howarth did it with a combination of intelligence, political savvy, guts, and, on occasion, bad manners. But he did do it, and he will be missed. ●