During 4½ years as mayor of New York, Irish-born Bill O'Dwyer often seemed to be doing his bullheaded best to commit political suicide. He made an enemy of President Harry Truman by publicly opposing him as a candidate before the 1948 Democratic Convention. He feuded with reporters. He enraged millions of his fellow citizens in the summer of 1950—when the district attorney began unearthing corruption in New York—by staging the biggest police funeral in city history for a captain who had put a bullet through his head while under investigation.

But charming...

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