East Coast politics have been the target of much dismay by those who believe that we can have a government – at any level – without the tinge of corruption or chicanery. Those observers fail to reckon with that great fall guy, “human nature.” As a student, and continuing over the years, I have been fascinated by the antics of Tammany Hall, the notorious Democratic political machine of 19th Century New York City. One of its more notable personages was George Washington Plunkitt, an appointed judge and a New York state senator. His motto – or rationale for his long tenure in politics – was “I seen my duty and I done it.”
Who but a teacher of grammar could argue with that noble statement? The answer: Thomas Nast, a man not native born, but with a sharp eye and a biting wit, who depicted Plunkitt and all of Tammany Hall in a series of satirical cartoons for Harpers Weekly. Eventually, under this barrage and that of other journalists, Tammany Hall’s 20-year hold on city politics was broken. and many of its members were tried and convicted of corrupt practices. William “Boss” Tweed, the group’s leader, died in jail. This little tale took place in a time when journalism meant something, and newspapers were the method of dispensing information and opinion. The organization, Tammany Hall, founded in 1789, was finally “rendered extinct” in 1966.
Is there a moral here? See if you can find one. Politics has often been called “the best game in town.” Once one steps into that realm, even with the best of intentions, one finds he cannot be totally inoculated against the viruses of puffery, ego-pumping solicitations, self deception and an inordinate belief that only he has the correct solutions and plans for the future. Once in office, few can resist the continuing pull of power and the glow of the limelight. Many “successful” politicians, when finally ousted, die of boredom or lack of attention. Those who can remain in the public eye rapidly become caricatures of themselves as their former plumage begins to fade.
It can be sad to see such a person strive to maintain old contacts in the former fashion and to kibitz in current events. Egos inflated by time in “public service” try in vain to maintain pressure. There are those few who retain and expect continuing adulation long after they step down. Very few deserve such attention.
Many years ago, when I was flitting around the edges of Boston politics, I did some ghost-writing for a man who was often unable to meet the deadline for his contracted weekly column. He was a sot, a man truly ruined by booze, but he had paid his dues long before I met him. Though his demeanor was just plain nasty and vicious, every elected official at city and state level deferred to him. They were always quick to acknowledge him at events and to keep an eye on him – as he kept an eye on them. He didn’t talk much, but he did give me some advice. One was “never, ever, ever bw nice to a politician.” Oops. Broke that rule. Human nature, don’t you know. Another – “if you can’t give them money, they will forget you exist – unless you can deliver votes.” Sage advice.
You might consider my former mentor jaded and too harsh. Yet, even a glance at local and national politics today reveals that both the worst and the best of our “humanity” is on display. To some it makes our primate relatives appear far ahead of our race on the evolutionary scale. Consider West Hollywood and how we get to know the candidates for City Council. Over-sized postcards, 60 seconds at a “gang-debate,” a chat or two at a neighborhood social gathering and a chance meeting at your doorstep.
A new wrinkle is to keep the same dance partners and to venture into the fray holding hands with one since each have the same desire: retention, old tricks and the broadest smiles. Then, if it looks like you might have a challenger breathing heavily at your back, sue them for telling the truth.
Earlier on these pages the question was put forth: What’s a city council seat worth? For the residents it might be peace of mind, knowing that the seat would be filled by one who wants to slow things down, to view more closely what residents want versus what developers can pay for. Wait a minute! I think that the reviled East Coast politics have reached West Hollywood. Who knew it would take so long?