Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Can’t corruption be done right?

by Larry Geller

Most of my family were union members, ILGWU. Garment workers. My grandfather was a tailor.

I remember very little of life as a small child in New York City, but one thing that stands out in my memory was that the ILGWU took care of its members. It doesn’t matter what the problem was, they could be counted on to step in. If a member became sick, they were there. If there was legal trouble, it got “taken care of.”

There didn’t seem to be much difference between the unions and the Democratic Party to me. Same thing, if you needed something, the party/union would help out.

Without a doubt, there was considerable corruption involved. New York, Chicago, same thing. I don’t mean the kind of corruption that hit the news yesterday—the arrest of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich for allegedly trying to sell the president-elect's vacated senate seat and more. He was out for himself. He got caught. No doubt they’ll eventually put him behind bars.

In New York, politicians were part of a complex system of relationships, supporting members of the “family,” not just themselves. No one ever got caught that I knew of, or if they did, it didn’t seem to matter. Probably they did get locked up, but as a little kid I didn’t know about such things. Plus, there were ways not to get locked up.

I only remember the support one got from the union/party. Like when my grandma got stomach cancer, there was financial help so that the family could survive her illness and death.

Sam Smith wrote about those times past in an article on his Progressive Review website,  Flotsam & Jetsam: How Corruption has Changed, 12/10/2008, From Shadows of Hope, Indiana University Press, 1993. A snippet:

[George Washington] Plunkitt [a leader of New York’s Tammany Hall] was not only corrupt but a hardworking, perceptive and appealing politician who took care of his constituents, qualities one rarely find in any plurality of combinations in politics these days.

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 rarely even tithe to the people.

Politics, Plunkitt  said,  "is as much a regular business as the grocery or the dry-goods or the drug business"  and it was based on studying human nature. He claimed to know every person in his district, their likes and their dislikes…

But most of all Plunkitt believed in taking care of his constituents. Nothing so dramatically illustrates this than a typical day for Plunkitt as recorded by [newspaperman William] Riordon: 

Plunkitt was aroused a two am to bail out a saloonkeeper who had been arrested for tax law violations. At six 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 am he was getting six drunk constituents released. At nine he was in court on another case. At eleven, upon returning home, he found four voters seeking assistance. At three he went to the funeral of an Italian, followed by one for a Jew.
At seven PM he had a district captains' meeting. At eight he went to a church fair. At nine 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, 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?
These glimpses are instructive because they contrast so markedly with the impersonal, abstract style of politics to which we have become accustomed. It was, to be sure, a mixture of the good and the bad, but you at least knew whom to thank and whom to blame. As late as the 1970s the tradition was still alive in Chicago as 25th Ward leader Vito Marzullo told a Chicago Sun-Times columnist:

I ain't got no axes to grind. You can take all your news media and all the do-gooders in town and move them into my 25th Ward, and do you know what would happen? On election day we'd beat you fifteen to one. The mayor don't run the 25th Ward, Neither does the news media or the do-gooders. Me, Vito Marzullo. that's who runs the 25th Ward, and on election day everybody does what Vito Marzullo tells them. . .

My home is open 24 hours a day. I want people to come in. As long as I have a breathing spell, I'll got to a wake, a wedding, whatever. I never ask for anything in return. On election day, I tell my people, "Let your conscience be your guide."

In the world of Plunkitt and Marzullo politics was not something handed down to the people through such intermediaries as Larry King It was not the product of spin doctors, campaign hired guns or phony town meetings. It welled up from the bottom, starting with one loyal follower, one ambitious ballplayer, twelve unhappy pushcart peddlers.  What defined politics was an unbroken chain of human experience, memory and gratitude.

Here in Hawaii, I wonder which politicians really care about us? Can you name one? And if they act to assist their constituents, won’t someone drag that out and make a scandal of it?

Ed Case is asking what office he should run for. Read the article. It’s all about him. So is his web page. Does he care about anyone but himself? There’s no hint in the article. What would he do for me in any of the offices he is considering campaigning for? Can we suggest “none of the above” to him?

No, I’m not saying that the good old days were better, just that what we have now, including the massive Internet campaigns to support political candidates, isn’t working for us. That is, when these folks get elected, they don’t work for us (much less support widows or show up for weddings). The corruption is still there. The give-back is missing.

We can’t even count on our government to feed a single auto worker.

As I read daily about Obama appointing Clintonistas, right-wing money managers, war hawks or lobbyists to his future cabinet or as his advisors, and as he backs off from his campaign promises to impose windfall taxes on oil profiteers (for example), I’ve moved far from the position of hope that I shared with voters across the country as he was elected. I’ve moved through disappointment to occasional despair.

At the same time, I realize that in the modern democratic metaphor, he doesn’t owe us anything. We elected him, but that doesn’t create a relationship. Our job is done, and his begins.

You’d think he would have learned something from the 25th Ward while he was in Chicago.


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