By Wes Peyton
If ever San Jose boasted a classic Irish politician, John P. McEnery, the father of San Jose City Councilman Tom McEnery, had to be it.
John was a native San Josean and he never spoke with an Irish brogue, but you always were waiting for him to. He looked and (except for the accent) sounded like a character from The Last Hurrah— big, bluff, plainspoken.
As he aged, his black hair turned a distinguished silver, but you couldn’t say that advancing years mellowed him. John McEnery was born mellow, in the Irish manner, and he stayed that way all his life. He genuinely liked people, but he had few illusions about them. It’s hard to hang onto illusions selling newspapers at Second and Santa Clara streets and working your way through college as (among other things) a gravedigger.
John McEnery’s mellowness was one side of his keen appreciation of the human capacity for outrage.
He never held an elective office, although he ran twice — once for county supervisor and once for the Democratic nomination for state Assembly. John was the behind-the-scenes man who made the Democratic Party in Santa Clara County (and later in California) go in the days when being a Democrat here would get you a bus ride if you had a nickel.
John was what political writers like to call a wheelhorse. He chaired the committees that got things done, things like hiring the halls and filling them by cajoling party luminaries to speak. He saw to it that prospective voters got registered— and then voted. And for more than 40 years, he harrumphed at lazy or otherwise inept public officials and habitually poured more intensity and energy into more individual political campaigns than anybody else around.
It is almost inconceivable then, although Tom swears it to be gospel, that John McEnery got into politics by default.
“Dad was always athletic,” Tom recalled the other day. “He mostly played basketball and baseball at St. Joseph’s grammar school and later at Bellarmine, but when he entered the University of Santa Clara, for some reason, he went out practical. It probably stemmed from his early upbringing.
John McEnery was born in 1906 in the family home at 13th and Julian streets. His father, Patrick H. McEnery (the family always insisted the spelling was a literary affectation) was an Irish journalist who came to the city editorship of the old Mercury Herald by way of London’s Fleet Street. John may well have inherited his love of language from his father.
For whatever reason, Patrick McEnery’s two boys went into the two most verbal professions, politics and the priesthood. (Father Henry McEnery, John’s older brother, founded and was pastor of St. Albert the Great Church in Palo Alto at the time of his death in 1964.)
John grew up the way all youngsters did in small-town San Jose in the first quarter of this century. He went to school, sold papers downtown, played on school and neighborhood teams, took odd jobs (including, when he was older, the gravedigger chore for Tommy Monahan, the undertaker).
In fact, Monahan the undertaker may have played as large a role as Casanova the halfback in pushing John McEnery into politics. In the summer of his 19th year, John was toiling in Calvary Cemetery when he was struck by the most implacable of all nature’s forces: love.
Leaning on his shovel momentarily, he espied Margaret Dolores Sellers placing flowers on an adjacent grave. She was, though he didn’t know it then, the daughter of Benjamin (Honest Ben) Sellers, who was elected to the San Jose City Council in 1914 and who was one of those responsible for bringing the council-manager form of government to town.
Two years after John was graduated from the University of Santa Clara in 1930, and after he had established himself as manager of the Hotel Sainte Claire, John and Margaret Dolores were married. In addition to talking a lot of politics, they produced five children — three girls and two boys, of whom Councilman Tom is the youngest.
John McEnery’s public life can be summed up quickly enough. He made his living in the home and hardware business, but his life was his family and politics, which latter activity gave full range to his talent for conviviality and invective. He loved the organizing, and he had no patience for guile or organizational deceit. He was as happy excoriating the City Council for the downtown “parking mess” (that council was, in McEnery’s words, “a bunch of rumdums who don’t know what’s going on,”) as he was taxing fellow Democrats for their moral laxity.
In the presidential election year of 1948, when McEnery was vice chairman of the California Democratic Party, he tangled bitterly with James Roosevelt, the eldest son of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Jimmy wanted the California delegation to the Democratic National Convention to repudiate its pledged support of President Harry Truman; Roosevelt thought Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower would pull better at the polls.
McEnery thought Roosevelt’s opportunism “a damnable disgrace” and sought to block Roosevelt’s nomination as Democratic national committeeman from California. “I have learned to hate him,” said McEnery of Roosevelt, “because he has proved to be a hypocrite beyond doubt.” Two years later, when Roosevelt ran for governor of California, McEnery supported Republican Earl Warren; hypocrisy was one trait McEnery couldn’t abide in a politician.
That antipathy played a part, too, in his resignation from the one local office he ever held. In 1949 McEnery resigned from the San Jose City Planning Commission (after a two-year stint), because the City Council kept ignoring commission recommendations. “I don’t want to belong to 4 city administration,” McEnery said on that occasion, “where discontent and inefficiency are rampant.”
In 1947, President Truman offered McEnery the superintendency of the United States Mint in San Francisco, but he turned the job down. In 1952, Truman appealed to John again, and this time McEnery acquiesced, knowing he wouldn’t be there long. (In fact, he resigned in November of that year, shortly after Eisenhower was elected president.) That was as close as John McEnery ever came to political patronage; it was as close as he ever wanted to come.
For John McEnery, politics was more than expediency and winning elections. He loved a good fight, but he always had to know — and believe in what he was fighting for. A yellowing clipping from the September 6, 1941 issue of The Leader, a Catholic weekly in San Francisco, makes the point in McEnery’s own words.
Two months before Pearl Harbor, it was clear to everybody that the United States already was involved in World War II. Only the date and manner of formal entry remained in doubt, and it was in this atmosphere that McEnery addressed the state convention of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
“You cannot defend a country,” McEnery admonished his fellow Irishmen, “by raising armies and neglecting national morale! You cannot set out to conquer the world and leave behind a nation divided on all sorts of issues. You cannot work for a peace treaty pledging the brotherhood of man and the cooperation of nations when in your own land you enshrine class hatred, religious and racial prejudice, selfishness and greed and live by the principle, ‘Every man for himself’ No! We need more than armies and industrial output. We must delve into the past and reappraise those qualities that have made this nation strong and great. A spiritual awakening is needed, a moral resurrection that will quicken a responsible citizenry. By this means alone can responsible nationalism reconstruct the world; by this means alone can that nationalism obtain and maintain peace . . .
“If worse comes to worst, America may very well be the last stronghold of freedom in the wide world.
“But this is the last ditch fight that every Irishman loves; he has been found with every forlorn hope for the last 1,000 years. As the tragic Gael once cried out:
“When the Kings of Eternal Evil
‘Darken the Hills about,
‘Our part is with broken sabre
‘To rise on the last Redoubt.”
That was John P. McEnery. Redoubtable.