The Corrupting of New York City


The reformers fail to respect the fundamental rule that leads to success in politics: they fail to “study human nature and act accordin’.” The professional politician never makes that mistake. “If there’s a fire in Ninth, Tenth, or Eleventh Avenue, for example, any hour of the day or night, I’m usually there with some of my election district captains as soon as the fire-engines. If a family is burned out I don’t ask whether they are Republicans or Democrats, and I don’t refer them to the Charity Organization Society, which would investigate their case in a month or two and decide they were worthy of help about the time they are dead from starvation. I just get quarters for them, buy clothes for them if their clothes were burned up, and fix them up till they get things runnin’ again. It’s philanthropy, but it’s politics, too.… Who can tell how many votes one of these fires bring me?”

His own study of human nature, Plunkitt says, has taught him that “you can’t keep an organization together without patronage. Men ain’t in politics for nothin’. They want to get sofnethin’ out of it.”

If patronage holds an organization together, how can Tammany come back after it loses an election? People forget that “Tammany has an immense private patronage that keeps things goin’ when it gets a setback at the polls.” After the reform candidate Seth Low was elected mayor in 1901, “some of my men lost public jobs, but I fixed them all right. I don’t know how many jobs I got for them on the surface and elevated railroads—several hundred.”

In addition, the professional politician can rely upon reciprocity in patronage. “When Tammany’s on top I do good turns for the Republicans. When they’re on top they don’t forget me.… The politicians have got to stand together this way or there wouldn’t be any political parties in a short time.”

Plunkitt’s subtlest moment as a philosopher comes when he confronts the charge that politicians grow rich on graft. This accusation fails to draw the line, Plunkitt says, “between honest graft and dishonest graft.” Yes, he concedes, “many of our men have grown rich in politics. I have myself. I’ve made a big fortune out of the game … but I’ve not gone in for dishonest graft—blackmailin’ gamblers, saloon-keepers, disorderly people, etc.—and neither has any of the men who have made big fortunes in politics.”

What is honest graft? Suppose Plunkitt learns that a park or a bridge is going to be built. “I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board … makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before. Ain’t it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight?”

Honest graft makes for honest politicians, Plunkitt argues. “The politician who steals is worse than a thief. He is a fool. With the grand opportunities all around for the man with a political pull, there’s no excuse for stealin’ a cent.”

By Plunkitt’s definition, New York City’s next great scandal was a parade of fools. Not since the Reverend Parkhurst and the Lexow Committee exposed the corruption at the heart of the Police Department had New Yorkers heard anything like the revelations that emerged in the series of investigations conducted by Judge Samuel Seabury in the early 1930s—revelations that led to the resignation of the city’s jaunty mayor, James J. Walker, in 1932.

A protégé of Boss Murphy, Walker had been elected mayor in 1925 after a career chiefly distinguished by his composition, in 1908, of the hit song “Will You Love Me in December as You Do in May?” With the possible exception of Oakey Hall, no mayor in New York’s history has shown more interest in the city’s glamorous night life. Walker’s spats, his derbies, and his tailored double-breasted jackets earned him the nicknames of “Beau James” and “Gentleman Jim.” With his showgirl mistress, Betty Compton, at his side, he may have spent more time sipping champagne in the swanky Central Park Casino than he spent in City Hall. The public loved his breezy irreverence and his wisecracks. A reformer, he once said, is “a guy who rides through a sewer in a glass-bottomed boat.” In a long career, there is no evidence that he ever opposed Tammany in any way.

Thinking that it could not win, and wishing to obtain a few jobs after the votes were counted (remember Plunkitt on reciprocity in patronage), the Republican party often mounted no more than a token challenge in the mayoral elections. But the election of 1929 was different. A brash progressive, Fiorello H. La Guardia, captured the Republican nomination and launched a fierce campaign against the playboy mayor.