The Days of “Honest Graft”

Written by City & State on . Posted in Interviews, Profiles.





Writer and scholar Terry Golway is the director of the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy in Union, N.J. He served on the editorial board and as a columnist for The New York Times, and was a longtime editor and journalist for The New York Observer. The author of books on FDR, JFK and John Cardinal O’Connor, he delivers his newest work, Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics, on March 3. City & State Editor Morgan Pehme spoke with Golway about Al Smith, George Washington Plunkitt and whether New York politics is any less corrupt today than it was in the Tammany era. 

The following is an edited transcript. 

City & State: What lessons can we take away from the Tammany era for politics today? 

Terry Golway: One thing we can take away is that tactical politicians understand the importance of getting things done, and when they have their ears to the ground, and when they know that they are going to have to answer to the voters, they put a premium on achievement. There is this perception that Tammany put up candidates, and ignorant voters blindly went and voted for the Tammany candidate because they were immigrants or children of immigrants and they didn’t know any better. That’s the criticism that one hears in history and [heard] at the time. Well, the fact is, Tammany was punished many times at the polls. They had to work very hard to win elections, and the way they won elections was by delivering services, keeping their ears to the ground—and when they failed to do that, they lost. In today’s world of gerrymandered districts and highly ideological partisan politics, I think we could take a step back and learn from how the machine operated and why it was a success.

C&S: If you look at someone like George Washington Plunkitt, he was delivering myriad services to his ward, and all he wanted in return was for voters to pull the lever for Tammany. Do we get anything for our vote anymore? 

TG: We certainly don’t get as much as we used to—and part of that is a good thing, by the way, because you could make the argument [that] in a more sophisticated society, in the 21st century, the favors of government should not be handed out based on how one votes. If you’re impoverished, if your family is hungry, you should, in a good and just society, be entitled to help, and you shouldn’t have to barter your vote to get that help. But back then the vote was all you had. Government didn’t provide these services; the political machine did, so it was a transaction. Now, Tammany, of course, had no way, at least in theory, of knowing when you went into the poll whether you voted for the Tammany ticket or not, but they made darn sure that you at least showed up to the polls. The Tammany leader who should be the most famous boss— unfortunately, Boss Tweed is the most famous boss—Charles Francis Murphy, was the longest-reigning boss of Tammany Hall, 1902 until his death in 1924, and he became a power in Tammany because he watched after his district. And if you were a voter in his district and you didn’t come to the polls by 4 o’clock or so, you got a handwritten note delivered to your door saying, “Oh, by the way, haven’t you forgotten to do something, and remember all those things I did for you?” That’s how it worked back then. Again, people who rely on food stamps shouldn’t feel obliged to vote for their local councilperson or Assembly member in gratitude for getting food stamps. I think our society is better than that now. But there’s no question that when you feel you have a stake in the system, you are more likely to vote—and back then it was routine that 70 percent turned out to vote. Now it’s routine that 50 percent turn out, and that’s in a good year. So obviously people don’t feel that they have a stake in the system like they did back then.

C&S: In New York City’s most recent mayoral election, turnout was 25 percent. 

TG: That’s just a scandal! Tammany was all about turnout. Tammany wanted voter participation because of course they felt that the numbers favored them. They thought, “There’s more of us than there are of them.” So obviously if you drive up the turnout, you’re going to win. Tammany of course occasionally sat on its hands if they didn’t like a particular candidate— usually for national office—but they had a vested interest in getting people to the polls. Now it sometimes seems that the political organizations have the opposite strategy: to drive down the vote, to suppress the vote, and therefore increase their chances of winning. Times are very different, there’s no question about that.

C&S: When we talk about “grassroots organizing” today, doesn’t it pale in comparison with the ward system of Tammany? 

TG: Absolutely. There’s no system of organization like the old political machine. It was literally block by block, apartment house by apartment house, and there were thousands of operatives who knew what was going on in literally every apartment house. But society has changed. We don’t have that sort of organizing anymore. Frankly, I think that social media has the potential to be able to organize people in the way that Tammany used to, because it is so personalized. I am not much of one for social media myself, but I understand its potential as a grassroots organizing tool. And I would think—give a Tammany guy a mobile device and, boy, could you get a grassroots organization going really fast. So I think the potential is there, but it certainly doesn’t exist [yet]. Something happened when political organizations like Tammany fell apart in the middle of the 20th century. I do believe that we lost something, and maybe social media is a way of getting it back.

C&S: Obviously we still have ample numbers of elected officials getting arrested in New York State. How has political corruption changed? 

TG: This may be an apocryphal story, but so what? Al Smith is said to have said once—he was in Albany and he was walking past a law student who was assiduously studying some brief and he pointed at the student and said to his companion, “There’s a young fella who’s learning to take a bribe and call it a fee.” Our politics today, we’d like to think we’ve made progress in terms of clean government, but in some ways I think we’ve taken steps backward, because I think there is a lot of merit in what Al Smith supposedly said. We’ve almost institutionalized bribery in the way that our system works now. Everybody in Albany knows that one way to get on the good side of a lawmaker is to make sure that a lawmaker’s law firm is taken care of, because we have this high percentage of lawyers in government. That is as corrupt as anything Tammany ever came up with! These lawmakers who practice law on the side—are you kidding me?! That is corrupt! Until Albany has a full-time Legislature, it will be a cesspool of corruption. It’s that simple. Forget public finance. That’s another issue entirely. The notion that you can hire the law firm of an assemblyman or a state senator is just on the face of it absurd. And to suggest in any way that Tammany had a monopoly on this sort of chicanery is just willfully stupid.

C&S: Have we codified “honest graft”? 

TG: I wish I had said that—and I will— though I will attribute it to you. We have codified “honest graft,” no question about it. And we sort of laugh at George Washington Plunkitt, a Tammany guy who could make a distinction between honest and dishonest graft. Well, we’ve done it! We’ve written it into the law. Now it’s not “honest graft”—it’s “lawful graft.”

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