Plain Words From Truthful George

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In 1905 a New York publisher brought out the remarkably frank memoirs of a Tammany ward boss, George Washington Plunkitt (1842–1924), as recorded by his Boswell, William L. Riordon of the New York Evening Post . They have just been republished in a Button Paperback, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall , with a perceptive introduction by Arthur Mann. The following excerpts—witty, cynical, and shrewd—show how machine politics operated in the wild and woolly heyday of one of its most skillful practitioners.—The Editors

HONEST GRAFT AND DISHONEST GRAFT

Everybody is talkin’ these days about Tammany men growin’ rich on graft, but nobody thinks of drawin’ the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft. There’s all the difference in the world between the two. Yes, many of our men have grown rich in politics. I have myself. I’ve made a big fortune out of the game, and I’m gettin’ richer every day, but I’ve not gone in for dishonest graft—blackmailin’ gamblers, saloonkeepers, disorderly people, etc.—and neither has any of the men who have made big fortunes in politics.

There’s an honest graft, and I’m an example of how it works. … Just let me explain by examples. My party’s in power in the city, and it’s goin’ to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I’m tipped off, say, that they’re going to lay out a new park at a certain place.

I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared for before.

Ain’t it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight? Of course, it is. Well, that’s honest graft.

If my worst enemy was given the job of writin’ my epitaph when I’m gone, he couldn’t do more than write:

“George W. Plunkitt. He Seen His Opportunities, and He Took ’Em.”

HOW TO BECOME A STATESMAN

Some young men think they can learn how to be successful in politics from books, and they cram their heads with all sorts of college rot. They couldn’t make a bigger mistake. Another mistake: some young men think that the best way to prepare for the political game is to practice speakin’ and becomin’ orators. That’s all wrong.

I guess I can explain best what to do to succeed in politics by tellin’ you what I did. After goin’ through the apprenticeship of the business while I was a boy by workin’ around the district headquarters and hustlin’ about the polls on election day, I set out when I cast my first vote to win fame and money in New York City politics. I had a cousin, a young man who didn’t take any particular interest in politics. I went to him and said: “Tommy, I’m goin’ to be a politician, and I want to get a followin’; can I count on you?” He said: “Sure, George.” That’s how I started in business. I got a marketable commodity—one vote. Then I went to the district leader and told him I could command two votes on election day, Tommy’s and my own. He smiled on me and told me to go ahead. If I had offered him a speech or a bookful of learnin”, he would have said, “Oh, forget it!”

I soon branched out. Two young men in the flat next to mine were school friends. I went to them, just as I went to Tommy, and they agreed to stand by me. Then I had a followin’ of three voters and I began to get a bit chesty. Whenever I dropped into district headquarters, everybody shook hands with me, and the leader one day honored me by lightin’ a match for my cigar. And so it went on like a snowball rollin’ down a hill. Before long I had sixty men, and formed the George Washington Plunkitt Association.

What did the district leader say then when I called at headquarters? I didn’t have to call at headquarters. He came after me and said: “George, what do you want? If you don’t see what you want, ask for it. Wouldn’t you like to have a job or two for your friends?”

As time went on, and my association grew, I thought I would like to go to the Assembly. I just had to hint at what I wanted, and three different organizations offered me the nomination. Afterwards, I went to the Board of Aldermen, then to the State Senate, then became leader of the district, and so on till I became a statesman.

THE CURSE OF CIVIL SERVICE REFORM

This civil service law is the biggest fraud of the age. It is the curse of the nation. There can’t be no real patriotism while it lasts. How are you goin’ to interest our young men in their country if you have no offices to give them while they work for their party?

Say, let me tell of one case. After the battle of San Juan Hill, the Americans found a dead man with a light complexion, red hair and blue eyes. They could see he wasn’t a Spaniard, although he had on a Spanish uniform. Several officers looked him over, and then a private of the Seventy-first Regiment saw him and yelled, “Good Lord, that’s Flaherty.” That man grew up in my district, and he was once the most patriotic American boy on the West Side. He couldn’t see a flag without yellin’ himself hoarse.