Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics
by George Washington Plunkitt and William Riordin
Published by E.P. Dutton & CO., Inc., 1963
Found in the dollar bin at Seaburn Books in Astoria
Between 1884 and 1904, during his time as an on-again, off-again New York State Senator, Tammany Hall politician George Plunkitt, occasionally took to a bootblack stand in Lower Manhattan and turned it into a pulpit. The stand sat outside the New York County Courthouse, and post-shine, he’d climb atop the structure to deliver impassioned, extemporaneous speeches on topics like his political philosophies, the righteousness of Tammany Hall, civil service reform and election strategies. These speeches, recorded by newspaperman (and Plunkitt superfan) William Riordin, were reproduced in Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics. It’s a slim volume and Plunkitt’s only real legacy; Plunkitt’s tongue was the thing that won him votes, not his paltry legislative record.
Don’t be fooled by the romantic imagery of a dignified man with a killer mustache, pontificating to rapt, New York City crowds; Plunkitt was a weasel and a political schemer. In other words, George Washington Plunkitt was a true Tammany Boss. Take his first oration in the book, a talk called “Honest and Dishonest Graft”:
“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 park at a certain price. I see my opportunity, and I take it. I go to that place and buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood.
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.”
Many of Plunkitt’s talks go just like the above: He presents a technically legal, but dubiously ethical scenario, then tries to convince the crowd before him that his actions are never designed to harm others and that what he’s doing is simply what any other red-blooded, opportunistic and motivated American would do.
In the introduction to the paperback edition by Arthur Mann, and in the preface by Riordin, Plunkitt is lauded for his honesty and willingness to get out amongst the rabble to speak the gospel of Tammany Hall. Of course Plunkitt isn’t a saint, but it’s easy to see why Mann and Rioridin depicted him as such: His genuine love of gaming democracy (and his frankness on the subject) is endearing, even if his moral center becomes increasingly difficult to locate.
Additionally, Plunkitt embraced anti-intellectualism, down-home values and the extremely humble roots from which he came. Likely, this is what made him popular and what helped him win elections, as pathos was Plunkitt’s rhetorical weapon of choice. Absent from Plunkitt’s talks are lofty promises and the can-do spirit typical of most stump speeches. Instead, he gets the most mileage out of his singular experience, one in which he rose out of a poor, Upper West Side neighborhood and slowly worked his way through the machine, all on the wings of what he calls “honest graft.”
His near-continuous hammering of intellectualism and modernism is perhaps the most striking and hilarious component of the book. In speeches like “Dangers of the Dress Suit,” Plunkitt reveals the core of his political game:
“Puttin’ on style don’t play in politics. The people won’t stand for it. If you’ve got an achin’ for style, sit down on it ‘til you have made your pile and landed a Supreme Court Justiceship with a 14-year term at $17,500 a year or some job of that kind. 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.”
So basically: Only wear a suit when you’re sure you’ve reached the highest possible position in all of politics. Hide those three-piece Armani’s, rising senators, lest you be spit upon by the working masses. You’ll need to dirty yourself up and wear only your most tattered of rags in order to endear yourself to the less fortunate. He really hammers this idea home in “Tammany Leaders Not Bookworms”:
“You hear a lot of talk about the Tammany district leaders bein’ illiterate men. If illiterate means havin’ common sense, we plead guilty. … As for the common people of the district, I am at home with them at all times. When I go among them, I don’t try to show off my grammar, or talk about the Constitution, or how many volts there is in electricity. …”
And so on. The tactic is unsurprising as it’s still used today, but to see it so plainly and deliberately spoken is as fascinating as it is disconcerting. We’ve yet to overcome this sort of false premise that the most electable and trustworthy politicians are “just like us,” just some men we’d like to have a beer with. And really, who actually cares about how many volts there is in electricity? I don’t. I just want to plug my thing into a wall and have it work. Don’t we all want that? We do, George Plunkitt. We do.
There is something to be said, of course, for Plunkitt’s total commitment to transparency and for his recognition that charisma and bombast were far more effective tools when it came to garnering the working-class vote. Plunkitt knew he wouldn’t win over crowds with analytical and fact-based approaches — it’s another instance of an opportunity being seen, then taken. The system could be gamed, and Plunkitt explored every possible route.
However, for all the unintentional laughter Plunkit of Tammany Hall provides, there’s also a troubling side to the book. Through Plunkitt’s speeches, it’s easy to see what the political machine in America has always lacked: empathy, perspective and understanding.
Politics, for Plunkitt, wasn’t about servitude. It wasn’t about making New York a better place through programs and outreach, or through understanding the complexities of class and coming up with long-term solutions. It was about singular achievement, gaming the system and not worrying too much about who got stepped on, so long as it wasn’t a Tammany Brother. But, as Riordin and Mann point out, at least dude was upfront about his intentions.
The point is: Rare, little volumes like this can be eye-openers when put into modern context. The appearance of American politics has changed, but its inner-workings still stake deep roots in the corrupt, selfish regimes of yore. And so we can read Plunkitt and laugh at the sheer absurdity of his speeches, but a nagging question remains: Are we still playing the same game?