Searching for Richardson Dilworth

He was the aristocrat who found his voice as a populist. The cerebral lawyer who fought in two World Wars. The cocktail-shaker dilettante who became the greatest reformer in the history of the city. Here’s why, more than ever, we need a mayor like Dick Dilworth

Although not everyone. Dilworth maintained a folder labeled “Hate Mail”:
 
I am a white citizen of what used to be Philadelphia but is now Niggerdelphia.
 
What could one expect from a Nigger Loving Skunk like you?
 
Why in the hell don’t you stop betraying your own people? We’re sick of the Jews and the Niggers and the way you cater to them. There are a hell of a lot of Democratic voters looking for a white man and you are a Mulatto.
 
Of course, those Democratic voters eventually found their white man.
 
Dilworth resigned in 1962, halfway through his second term, to run for governor. He had already run for governor in 1950 and lost. This was his last chance. He passed the crown to an old-school City Council president named Jim Tate.
 
It might have been easier for Dilworth to deal with what happened next — with the regression of the party under Tate, and then later under Frank Rizzo, the great nemesis of Dilworth’s career, a guy he despised and who despised him back(11) — if he had had any luck with his post-mayoral career. But by his own admission, he screwed it up. During the Cold War, a group of Democratic Ladies asked him a question about Red China, and he spontaneously blurted out that he believed Red China should be a part of the United Nations, why the heck not.(12) And that was it. He lost the 1962 governor’s race to Bill Scranton,(13) and with it, his outsider’s shot at picking up the Democratic nomination for president.(14) In 1965, he took the thankless job of heading up the school board(15), despite the fact that by now, Jim Tate wouldn’t give him the time of day. Later, he could never shake the suspicion that Rizzo was having him followed.

11. Rizzo used to claim that Dilworth owed him big-time for all the nights Rizzo’s cops had to carry him home, dead drunk, to Ann and Hattie; he once quipped that “everything Dilworth has been with has gone down, even the Andrea Doria.” The Doria sank in 1956, and Dilworth and Ann were among its passengers; when the boat started taking on water, Dilworth leaped into action and helped his fellow passengers to safety. So you could argue, contra Rizzo, that this story is evidence not of Dilworth’s bad luck, but of his incredible good luck: surviving two wars, surviving the Cuba Affair, being elected to City Hall at the height of the postwar economic boom, etc., etc.
 
12. “Just plain stupid,” Dilworth later told Peter Binzen. “I think to succeed in elective politics, pretty nearly everything you do has to be somewhat calculated. I never had the ability to do that.” Which of course is not exactly true.
 
13. Despite describing Scranton as “Little Lord Fauntleroy” — an “effeminate” man whose campaign posters featured “a ‘come kiss me’ smile.”
 
14. According to David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, John F. Kennedy saw Dilworth as one of his two main rivals — a man who could carry “the intellectuals and the liberals,” and whose Protestant bona fides “might serve the purpose of his [JFK’s] enemies, many of whom were uneasy about his Catholicism.”

15. Joe Clark, later in life, speaking to Binzen about Dilworth: “I think he’s the unsung hero of Philadelphia today. I really think this job that he’s tried to do with the school board and unfortunately failed, it is a Greek tragedy, and he deserves the most enormous amount of credit because he didn’t ask for it, he’s not getting paid for it, he must have known when he took it that it was going to be hell, he did it anyway because he loves the City of Philadelphia.”

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