Columbia Library columns (v.42(1992Nov-1993May))

(New York :  Friends of the Columbia Libraries.  )



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  v.42,no.2(1993:Feb): Page 3  

Honest Graft?
How George Washington Plunkitt
Became Plunkitt of Tammany Hall



hen Tammany Hall politician George Washington
Plunkitt died in 1924, the Nation called him "one of
the wisest men in American politics" and declared that
a 1905 book collectmg his wisdom, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, told
"all that needs to be told about American politics." The truth was,
the Nation opined, that "honesty doesn't matter, efficiency doesn't
matter, progressive vision doesn't matter. What matters is the
chance of a better job, a better price for wheat, better business con¬
ditions." Although Plunkitt was a "grafter," his constituents did not
care because "they could understand a cheerful and honest grafter
who made no pretense of virtue but did practical good right and left
every day in the week, better than they could a seventh-day
reformer who talked of the public welfare and did nothing tangible
for anybody."

Although it may seem ironic that a Tammany Hall "grafter"
would receive an accolade in a "reform" magazine like the Nation,
in fact, this response is typical of the way this book has been
received throughout the twentieth century. Subtitled A Series of
Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics and edited by New York
Evening Post reporter William L. Riordon, Plunkitt of Tammany
Hall went through three editions and became one of the two or
three most frequently cited twentieth-century sources on American
urban politics. The twenty-two "interviews" and one diary extract
in the book contributed the term "honest graft"—profit made from
inside information about municipal improvements—to the Ameri¬
can lexicon. They also affirmed the image of the ward boss as a
humorous Irish rogue who was in politics for his own advantage,
but who did good things for others along the way. Plunkitt scorned
  v.42,no.2(1993:Feb): Page 3