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A debate like 'a crowd at a wrestling match'

This is the second of three excerpts from "Richardson Dilworth: Last of the Bare-Knuckled Aristocrats," to be released June 20 by Camino Books ( Today's excerpt is from Chapter 11, "The Machine Shivers."

This is the second of three excerpts from "Richardson Dilworth: Last of the Bare-Knuckled Aristocrats," to be released June 20 by Camino Books ( Today's excerpt is from Chapter 11, "The Machine Shivers."

Peter Binzen was a reporter, editor, and columnist for more than 30 years at the Philadelphia Bulletin and for more than 20 years at The Inquirer

Jonathan Binzen is a writer and photographer, and the senior editor at Fine Woodworking magazine

To keep up the pressure on the embattled administration [of Republican Mayor Bernard Samuel], Dilworth went back on the campaign trail in 1949, running for city treasurer. His ally, Joseph Sill Clark, sought the office of city controller. At street-corner rallies, they slugged away at corruption in City Hall. Critics dismissed them as "Dilly and Silly," but their message that it was time for a change was getting through.

William F. Meade, the tough, shrewd boss of Philadelphia's downtown district, who had been elected chairman of the Republican City Committee in 1948, responded by going on the offensive. Raising the hobgoblin of Bolshevism, he charged that "Communist Party-liners" were backing Dilworth and Clark. Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), Meade claimed, was "infiltrated with communists and loaded with socialists." . . .

Dick Dilworth, [a veteran of both world wars], did not take kindly to having his loyalty impugned. Without knocking, he stormed into Meade's private office, demanding that he name "one single communist or Red associated with the ADA."

"We will," responded Meade.

"When?" shouted Dilworth.

"At the proper time."

But Meade never did give a name. Instead, he denounced Dilworth as a "psychopathic madman." . . .

Both the Bulletin and The Inquirer had opposed Dilworth's run for mayor in 1947, but now they came to his defense. "To represent the Democratic candidate as tainted with Communism is the height of absurdity," wrote the Bulletin. "Such tactics are not likely to fool even an intelligent child." The Inquirer declared that "Philadelphians, afflicted by the tyranny of the Republican monopoly-machine, have the right, the duty - and the opportunity - to overthrow their oppressors." . . .

The main event in the hot summer of 1949 was a reprise of the debate between Dilworth and Sheriff Austin Meehan, this time with Meehan in attendance. The two men appeared before a capacity crowd in Philadelphia's red-plush Academy of Music, and their debate was beamed to a radio and television audience estimated at 200,000. With the two men hurling wild epithets at each other, the heavily publicized encounter on July 12 degenerated into what the Bulletin termed "one of the rowdiest exhibitions in Philadelphia's political history."

The raucous partisans, evenly divided in the staid music hall, interrupted the speakers with hoots and catcalls that the newspaper likened to "a crowd at a wrestling match." Dilworth, who had previously labeled the 250-pound sheriff the "fat sultan," accused Meehan of running a dishonest political machine in Northeast Philadelphia based on numbers-writing and horse-betting. City police, Dilworth claimed, were paid to look the other way as 10 syndicates took in "no less than $100,000 a day in bets." He named names and said the chief clerk in the sheriff's office administered the system. Meehan dropped any pretense of civility, calling Dilworth a "chronic, dishonest liar" and a "political faker." . . .

In addition to slinging mud, Meehan and Dilworth spoke candidly about themselves. Meehan, who was immensely popular with the GOP faithful, described his lack of education. "I only went to the sixth grade in public school, when I had to go out and work as a water boy," he told the throng. "I graduated from water boy to a laborer. My life is an open and honest one, and I am proud of it." He conceded that he was fat but said that his patrician foe was the sultan.

Dilworth, who enjoyed many of the material advantages that Meehan lacked, related what his father had told him on his graduation from Yale Law School: "If all you are going to do with the great opportunities that you have had in this country is go out and pile up a little money, join some respectable church, and play golf on Sundays, then you never had any right to these privileges. If you can't and won't contribute something more to the community in which you live, then they ought to have gone to somebody who understands what it really means." He had taken his father's words to heart, he promised, and now he was being tested to see "whether I have got the courage and ability" to make Philadelphia "one of the really great cities of the world, both materially and, even more important, spiritually."

Dilworth also spoke of his wife's unflinching support. He described how one night during his run for mayor in 1947, when attacks on him were at fever pitch, he asked her if she was sure the fight was worth the effort. Ann, he said, had walked to a desk, picked up a Bible, and pointed to a line in the Book of Ruth. "And I will never forget this as long as I live," he told the audience. "She read the line, 'Whither thou goest, I will go.' And then she added a phrase of her own: 'Even to the end.' " Dilworth promised his supporters that he, too, would go on, "even to the end."

On Election Day, 79 percent of the city's voters went to the polls. Despite the Republicans' big lead in registration, their candidates took a shellacking. Dilworth, winning his first race at the age of 52, trounced a political neophyte, William Seiler, by more than 111,000 votes to become city treasurer. Clark, 49, beat William Linton Nelson, an investment banker, by almost as much in the race for city controller. Two other Democrats were elected coroner and register of wills.

The Democrats' sweep of the four "row offices" marked the first real crack in the Republican armor in Philadelphia. Time magazine noted that "after the exposure of graft, extortion, and embezzlement in nearly every city office, the smell from City Hall became too much even for torpid Philadelphians." The Inquirer, supporting the liberal reformers for the first time, said it wasn't a matter of party labels, but of "trying to redeem the city from those who had sunk it in the mire."

For Dilworth, the victory had been essentially symbolic. Once elected, he announced that he didn't see any real need for the position of city treasurer, and he recommended that it be abolished: "There's no sense in paying me or anyone else $15,400 a year to serve as nothing more than a glorified cashier."