Sam Smith is editor of the Progressive Review. His book, Shadows of Hope: Clinton and the Future of America, will be published by Indiana University Press this spring.
Things have gotten so bad with the Kelly administration that people are musing nostalgically about the Barry years, which, whatever their faults, had a certain symmetry and order. We were not faced then with the prospect of casinos one week and martial law the next, proposed by a mayor uncertain as to whether she needed the mob or the National Guard. Marion Barry knew what he wanted (whether we wanted it or not) and if this failed to produce respectability, it at least provided a semblance of reliability. Under Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, matters have become much more fluid, leading to confusion, for example, as to whether the military aid she has requested is supposed to land on the beaches of the Anacostia or merely ride around unarmed in squad cars taking videos for America’s Most Wanted.
A similar problem has developed with the Clinton administration. Clinton also won election as an agent of change but, like Kelly, failed to inform the voters how frequently it would occur. In just 10 months, we have had six distinct policies on Bosnia and five on Haiti. Depending on the weather and day of week, Gen. Aidid is to be routed from hiding and arrested, made part of the nation-building process, or asked to debate Al Gore on Larry King Live.
At such times a bit of revisionist thinking is understandable, for our situation touches on one of the great conundrums of American politics: Why are the corrupt and the venal so often followed by the chaotic and incompetent? Why are those on the take so frequently more comfortable with government and politics than the reformers whose whole stock in trade, after all, is to set things right?
Kelly (although it is increasingly hard to recall) was elected as a reformer. This is not to say she was a reformer—it was actually just an idea she stumbled across in the campaign—but that was the flag she flew, just as Bill Clinton promised a new covenant that most (unwisely, it turned out) took to mean some kind of reform.
In each case, it quickly became clear that we had elected someone who could disassemble the watch but not put it back together again. We shortly faced the prospect of alleged reform lasting no more than one term, at which point grim normalcy would return in the form of, say, John Ray or Bob Dole.
Thus does modern American politics oscillate, leaving us trapped between amoral order and moral chaos. What we want doesn’t seem to work; what functions we can’t abide. Ideology and policy seem of little use here because the awful bipartisan truth of the matter is this: There are hardly any good politicians or politics anymore.
George Washington Plunkitt would not have been surprised. Plunkitt was a leader of Tammany Hall and was, by the standards of our times and his, undeniably corrupt. As his Boswell, newspaperman William Riordon, noted: “In 1870 through a strange combination of circumstances, [Plunkitt] held the places of Assemblyman, Alderman, Police Magistrate and County Supervisor and drew three salaries at once—a record unexampled in New York politics.” This extraordinary politician’s office was a bootblack stand where Riordon went to record testimony for his classic 1905 book, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics.
By the turn of the century, Plunkitt would be a millionaire, in part through his successful practice of “honest graft,” a term he defined as the intelligent use of inside information, permitting for example the purchase of land in the path of a road whose construction had not yet become generally known. Facing three bidders at a city auction of 250,000 paving stones, he dispensed with competition by offering each of them 10,000 to 20,000 free stones and buying the whole lot for $2.50. But he had considerable contempt for those politicians who engaged in “dishonest graft”: those who robbed the city treasury, the blackmailing gamblers, and pols who trifled with the penal code.
At the same time, Plunkitt was incensed by civil service reform, which he called the curse of the nation. It undermined patriotism—in his view kept alive by the assurance of patronage in return for campaign work—and could lead to anarchism or even treason as in the case of Flaherty, the poor New Yorker who was inexplicably found among the dead at San Juan Hill in a Spanish uniform. Plunkitt investigated this oddity and discovered that indeed the young man had, “chockful of patriotism, worked day and night for the Tammany ticket” in the campaign of 1897. Tammany won and Flaherty was set to devote his life to government until, at the civil service test, he read “the questions about the mummies, the bird on the iron and all the other fool questions—and he left that office an enemy of the country that he loved so well.”
Plunkitt was a man of vision. Nearly 90 years before Mayor Kelly latched onto the idea for D.C., George Washington Plunkitt said that his fondest dream would be that his city would become a state:
“It’s got to come. The feelin’ between this city and the hayseeds that make a livin’ by plunderin’ it is every bit as bitter as the feelin’ between the North and South before the war.”
“The people here,” he said, “are nothin’ but slaves of the Albany gang….We’ll get liberty peacefully if we can; by cruel war if we must….Honest, now, the notion takes me sometimes to yell poetry of the red-hot-hail-glorious-land kind when I think of New York City as a state by itself.”
Tammany was founded in 1854; its golden age lasted until the three-term La Guardia administration began in 1934. For only 10 intervening years was Tammany out of office. We got rid of people like Plunkitt and machines like Tammany because we came to believe in something called good government, because the machines were not only corrupt, they were prejudiced, authoritarian and unfair. But in throwing out the machines we also tossed out an attitude and an art of politics. It was as though, in seeking to destroy the Mafia, we had determined that by association family values and personal loyalty were somehow criminal as well.
Plunkitt was not only corrupt but a hard-working, perceptive, and appealing politician who took care of his constituents, qualities one rarely finds in any plurality of combinations in politics these days. In fact, even our corrupt politicians aren’t what they used to be. Corruption once involved a complex, if feudal, set of quid pro quos; today, our corrupt politicians don’t even tithe to the people, let alone understand the difference between honest and dishonest graft.
We do need a reform movement—not to make politics more honest or efficient but to make it more human, satisfying, and pleasurable. To this end, I offer all aspiring and expiring politicians a distillation of the Plunkitt Paradigm:
Don’t Be a Mornin’ Glory That’s what Plunkitt called reformers: They “looked lovely in the mornin’ and withered up in a short time, while the regular machines went on flourishin’ forever.” In D.C., I’ve seen some movements start at a morning news conference and be over by the 11 p.m. news. As Plunkitt said, “Politics is as much a regular business as the grocery or the dry-goods or the drug business.”
Study Human Nature and Act Accordin’ Plunkitt warned that “you can’t study human nature in books….If you have been to college, so much the worse for you. You’ll have to unlearn all you learned before you can get right down to human nature, and unlearnin’ takes a long time.” Plunkitt claimed to know every person in his district: “I reach them by approachin’ at the right side.” Plunkitt would have had little use for 2,000-page trade agreements.
Stick With Your Friends “The politicians who make a lastin’ success in politics are the men who are always loyal to their friends, even up to the gate of State prison, if necessary….Richard Croker used to say that tellin’ the truth and stickin’ to his friends was the political leader’s stock in trade.” This principle had become largely inoperative by the time of Lani Guinier.
Get a Following and Get an Organization Even if your following consists of only one man, “go to the district leader and say: “I want to join the organization. I’ve got one man who’s follow me through thick and thin’ ” and then you get his cousin and his cousin and so on until you have your own organization. It was a principle that worked well for Tammany Hall, which at its height early this century had 32,000 committeemen and was forced to use Madison Square Garden for its meetings. In contrast, when the Democratic National Committee decided to send a mailing to all its workers a few years ago, it found that no one had kept a list.
Don’t Be an Orator “We’ve got some orators at Tammany Hall,” reported Plunkitt, “but they’re chiefly ornamental….The men who rule have practiced keepin’ their tongues still, not exercisin’ them.” Little we could do would so improve politics as reviving this Plunkitt principle.
Puttin’ on Style Don’t Pay in Politics “If you’ve got an achin’ for style, sit down on it till you have made your pile and landed a Supreme Court Justiceship….Then you’ve got about all you can get out of politics, and you can afford to wear a dress suit all day and sleep in it all night, if you have a mind to. But before you’ve caught onto your life meal ticket, be simple. Live like your neighbors even if you have the means to live better. Make the poorest man in your district feel that he is your equal, or even a bit superior to you.”
The Successful Politician Does Not Drink Plunkitt describes the election of 1897 when Tammany swept the city. Plunkitt and the other leaders invited the crowd at headquarters over to a bar to celebrate. “A lot of small politicians followed us, expecting to see magnums of champagne opened. The waiters in the restaurant expected it, too, and you never saw a more disgusted lot of waiters when they got our orders. Here’s the orders: Croker, vichy and bicarbonate of soda; Carroll, seltzer lemonade; Sullivan, apollinaris; Murphy, vichy; Plunkitt, ditto. Before midnight we were all in bed, and next mornin’ we were up bright and early attendin’ to business while other men were nursin’ swelled heads. Is there anything the matter with temperance as a pure business proposition?” Plunkitt thus would have faulted Marion Barry not only for trifling with the penal code but also for getting high. In order to succeed, he said, a politician has to stay sober as in any other business.
Take Care of Your Constituents Nothing so dramatically illustrates this than the log of a typical day for Plunkitt as recorded by Riordon:
Plunkitt was aroused at 2 a.m. to bail out a saloonkeeper who had been arrested for tax law violations. At 6, he was again awakened, this time by fire engines. Tammany leaders were expected to show up at fires to give aid and comfort. Besides, notes Riordon, they were great vote-getters.
At 8:30 a.m., Plunkitt was getting six drunk constituents released from the hoosegow. At 9 he was in court on another case. At 11, upon returning home, he found four voters seeking assistance. At 3, he went to the funeral of an Italian, followed by one for a Jew.
At 7 p.m., he had a district captains’ meeting. At 8, he went to a church fair. At 9, he was back at the party clubhouse listening to the complaints of a dozen pushcart peddlers. At 10:30, he went to a Jewish wedding, after having “previously sent a handsome wedding present to the bride.” He finally got to bed at midnight.
Concluded Riordon: “By these means the Tammany district leader reaches out into the homes of his district, keeps watch not only on the men, but also on the women and children, knows their needs, their likes and dislikes, their troubles and their hopes, and places himself in a position to use his knowledge for the benefit of his organization and himself. Is it any wonder that scandals do not permanently disable Tammany and that it speedily recovers from what seems to be crushing defeat?”
Not a bad list of rules. Sure, Plunkitt was corrupt, but we don’t have much to be priggish about. The corruption of Watergate, Iran-contra, and the S&Ls fed no widows, found no jobs for the needy, and, in the words of one Tammany leader “grafted to the Republic” no newly arrived immigrants. At least Tammany’s brand of corruption made it to the streets.
Manipulation of the voter and the system is at the heart of both Tammany and contemporary politics. The big difference is that in the former, the voter could count on something in return with greater regularity.