Tammany Hall Redux: From Boss Tweed to Eleanor Holmes Norton's 'Business As Usual' Phone Call

Tammany Hall, the greatest criminal organization of its age, spanning the era from Aaron Burr to Boss Tweed to Boss Croker and Charlie Murphy, was the perfect marriage of Democrat Party politics and organized crime. Though thought dead and buried with Carmine DeSapio, it never really went away. In the 1930s, it molted and set up shop in the small city of Hot Springs, Ark., where gangster Owney Madden established a Tammany South, an open city that welcomed gangsters like Frank Costello and politicians like Sen. John McClellan alike, and sent a young William Jefferson Clinton back as its gift to America.

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Thinly veiled — and sometimes not so thinly veiled — shakedowns were a way of life for Tammany politicians. At first they were backed up by the power of muscle, of Tammany’s fleet of thugs and gangsters who made sure their voters got to the polls and made equally sure the other guy’s stayed well away. In New York, informal precinct bosses — called “sheriffs” — were recruited from the city’s notorious street gangs, including the Eastmans, the Five Points Gang (whence sprang Al Capone) and Madden’s own Gophers, the terrors of the west wide in what is now Chelsea. The New Black Panthers, standing outside that Philly polling place with billy clubs, are nothing new in American politics. If you knew what was good for you, you voted for the Tiger early and often and you gave and gave and gave.

Illegal? So what? Effective? You bet.

So the now-infamous Eleanor Holmes Norton velvet-glove phone call should not have come as a shock to even the most dewy-eyed goo-goos. Nothing really has changed, and certainly not on the Democrat side. The Daley-Axelrod-Emanuel Chicago machine continues to do business in the same way the Chicago machine of Bathhouse Coughlin and Hinky Dink Kenna did a century before. When Mao said that all power flows from the barrel of a gun — whether real or symbolic — he was simply translating into Chinese what the old Five Points boy-turned-Chitown boss, Capone, meant when he noted that in his Brooklyn neighborhood, you got farther with a kind word and a gun than with just a kind word.

Capone Chicago

Michael Barone has referred to the current Administration as “gangster government” and he is more right than he knows. Still, the old Tiger is not invulnerable; even George Washington Plunkitt, the sage of the Wigwam, knew that Tammany needed to lose every once in a while, so that it could roar back as the Komeback Kid, the same old wolf in new sheep’s clothing.

Tammany also knew something often forgotten today in the heat of the partisan battles: that, except on election day there’s only one political party, which is of, by and for the politicians:

Me and the Republicans are enemies just one day in the year -election day. Then we fight tooth and nail The rest of the time it’s live and let live with us. On election day I try to pile up as big a majority as I can against George Wanmaker, the Republican leader of the Fifteenth. Any other day George and I are the best of friends. I can go to him and say: “George, I want you to place this friend of mine.” He says: “Mi right, Senator.” Or vice versa.

You see, we differ on tariffs and currencies and all them things, but we agree on the main proposition that when a man works in politics, he should get something out of it. The politicians have got to stand together this way or there wouldn’t be any political parties in a short time.

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Something to keep in mind as we go forward into this season of the Tea Parties.

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