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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 333-334

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Book Review

Bossism and Reform in a Southern City:
Lexington, Kentucky, 1880-1940

Bossism and Reform in a Southern City: Lexington, Kentucky, 1880-1940. By James Duane Bolin (Lexington, University Press of Lexington, 2000) 202pp. $24.95

This book is about a southern political boss named Billy Klair, the political history of a midsized southern city over a sixty-year period, and a municipal-reform effort that eventually replaced Klair and the role of the political boss in Lexington's political culture. Bossism and Reform attempts to examine these various topics in the context of larger historiographical trends in modern urban history, as well as provide an account of the "inner workings" of a southern political machine.

Bolin's research task was formidable. Klair did not leave a wealth of material, and most of the figures who participated in this history are deceased. The question becomes, How does one find the inner dynamics of a political operation that left few historical tracks? Such an undertaking requires a tenacious research effort into obscure sources. Yet, Bolin's work is hardly exhaustive. A more serious level of research and analysis would have revealed many more nuggets about the functioning dynamics of Lexington's political culture.

Without a broad foundation of written sources other than newspapers, oral history could have been indispensible to uncovering the hidden history of Klair's political machine. Bolin's use of oral history is, unfortunately, limited and awkward; he interviewed only two marginally useful subjects. At a critical part of his narrative, Bolin comes to the intersection of power and politics--in other words, money. Klair not only ran Lexington and played a seminal role in the Kentucky Democratic party, but he also operated a considerable Lexington insurance firm. How much did Klair profit from his political connections? To answer this question, Bolin interviewed State Historian Thomas D. Clark, who has lived in Lexington since the late 1920s. "Clark surmised that Klair and Scott carried a 'tremendous amount' of the state's insurance" (44), writes Bolin. Another interview with former governor A.B. "Happy" Chandler gained a similar conjecture. Bolin provides additional documentary evidence suggesting that Klair made a significant amount of money from his businesses, but his use of oral history serves to confuse rather than clarify. Although Bolin claims that interviews were one of the central components of his research, he listed only five other interviews throughout his endnotes. Clark and Chandler form the core of Bolin's oral history, but neither of them had any pivotal connection to Klair's inner circle. Bolin's book would have benefited greatly from a good editing job, as well as a more skillful use of interviews with many Lexingtonians who lived in the 1920s and 1930s and who experienced Klair's power firsthand.

Bolin takes aim at the argument that the New Deal summarily replaced the bosses' role in urban history, or what he terms the "welfare state thesis." To Bolin, the reasons for Klair's waning influence in [End Page 333] Lexington politics are more subtle and complex, including the changing role of the federal government in city politics and Lexington's fluid demographics. In the end, Bolin unhelpfully concludes that Klair's "legacy" somehow influenced Lexington politics until the party organi-zation crumbled in the 1960s.

Figures such as Klair and histories of cities like Lexington have much to offer political and social historians; they can help explain some of the hidden interiors of American politics. Bossism and Reform reveals some of the imposing research impediments to a successful study.


Tracy Campbell
University of Kentucky



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