Barack Obama likes to compare himself to Abraham Lincoln, but he’s got more in common with George Washington. George Washington Plunkitt that is. Old G.W. was a Tammany Hall politician who theories of machine politics and “honest graft” were chronicled in 1905 by William L. Riordan:
THIS volume discloses the mental operations of perhaps the most thoroughly practical politician of the day – George Washington Plunkitt, Tammany leader of the Fifteenth Assembly District, Sachem of the Tammany Society and Chairman of the Elections Committee of Tammany Hall, who has held the offices of State Senator, Assemblyman, Police Magistrate, County Supervisor and Alderman, and who boasts of his record in filling four public offices in one year and drawing salaries from three of them at the same time.
This is Chapter Two of Plunkitt of Tammany Hall:
THERE’s thousands of young men in this city who will go to the polls for the first time next November. Among them will be many who have watched the careers of successful men in politics, and who are longin’ to make names and fortunes for themselves at the same game – It is to these youths that I want to give advice. First, let me say that I am in a position to give what the courts call expert testimony on the subject. I don’t think you can easily find a better example than I am of success in politics. After forty years’ experience at the game I am – well, I’m George Washington Plunkitt. Everybody knows what figure I cut in the greatest organization on earth, and if you hear people say that I’ve laid away a million or so since I was a butcher’s boy in Washington Market, don’t come to me for an indignant denial I’m pretty comfortable, thank you.
Now, havin’ qualified as an expert, as the lawyers say, I am goin’ to give advice free to the young men who are goin’ to cast their first votes, and who are lookin’ forward to political glory and lots of cash. Some young men think they can learn how to be successful in politics from books, and they cram their heads with all sorts of college rot. They couldn’t make a bigger mistake. Now, understand me I ain’t sayin’ nothin’ against colleges. I guess they’ll have to exist as long as there’s book-worms, and I suppose they do some good in a certain way, but they don’t count in politics. In fact, a young man who has gone through the college course is handicapped at the outset. He may succeed in politics, but the chances are 100 to 1 against him.
Another mistake: some young men think that the best way to prepare for the political game is to practice speakin’ and becomin’ orators. That’s all wrong. We’ve got some orators in Tammany Hall, but they’re chiefly ornamental. You never heard of Charlie Murphy delivering a speech, did you? Or Richard Croker, or John Kelly, or any other man who has been a real power in the organization? Look at the thirty-six district leaders of Tammany Hall today. How many of them travel on their tongues? Maybe one or two, and they don’t count when business is doin’ at Tammany Hall. The men who rule have practiced keepin’ their tongues still, not exercisin’ them. So you want to drop the orator idea unless you mean to go into politics just to perform the skyrocket act.
Now, I’ve told you what not to do; I guess I can explain best what to do to succeed in politics by tellin’ you what I did. After goin’ through the apprenticeship of the business while I was a boy by workin’ around the district headquarters and hustlin’ about the polls on election day, I set out when I cast my first vote to win fame and money in New York City politics. Did I offer my services to the district leader as a stump-speaker? Not much. The woods are always full of speakers. Did I get up a hook on municipal government and show it to the leader? I wasn’t such a fool. What I did was to get some marketable goods before goin’ to the leaders. What do I mean by marketable goods? Let me tell you: I had a cousin, a young man who didn’t take any particular interest in politics. I went to him and said: “Tommy, I’m goin’ to be a politician, and I want to get a followin’; can I count on you?” He said: “Sure, George.’, That’s how I started in business. I got a marketable commodity – one vote. Then I went to the district leader and told him I could command two votes on election day, Tommy’s and my own. He smiled on me and told me to go ahead. If I had offered him a speech or a bookful of learnin’, he would have said, “Oh, forget it!”
That was beginnin’ business in a small way, wasn’t it? But that is the only way to become a real lastin’ statesman. I soon branched out. Two young men in the flat next to mine were school friends – I went to them, just as I went to Tommy, and they agreed to stand by me. Then I had a followin’ of three voters and I began to get a bit chesty. Whenever I dropped into district headquarters, everybody shook hands with me, and the leader one day honored me by lightin’ a match for my cigar. And so it went on like a snowball rollin’ down a hill I worked the flat-house that I lived in from the basement to the top floor, and I got about a dozen young men to follow me. Then I tackled the next house and so on down the block and around the corner. Before long I had sixty men back of me, and formed the George Washington Plunkitt Association.
What did the district leader say then when I called at headquarters? I didn’t have to call at headquarters. He came after me and said: “George, what do you want? If you don’t see what you want, ask for it. Wouldn’t you like to have a job or two in the departments for your friends?” I said: “I’ll think it over; I haven’t yet decided what the George Washington Plunkitt Association will do in the next campaign.” You ought to have seen how I was courted and petted then by the leaders of the rival organizations I had marketable goods and there was bids for them from all sides, and I was a risin’ man in politics. As time went on, and my association grew, I thought I would like to go to the Assembly. 1 just had to hint at what I wanted, and three different organizations offered me the nomination. Afterwards, I went to the Board of Aldermen, then to the State Senate, then became leader of the district, and so on up and up till I became a statesman.
That is the way and the only way to’ make a lastin’ success in politics. If you are goin’ to cast your first vote next November and want to go into politics, do as I did. Get a followin’, if it’s only one man, and then go to the district leader and say: “I want to join the organization. I’ve got one man who’ll follow me through thick and thin.” The leader won’t laugh at your one-man followin’. He’ll shake your hand warmly, offer to propose you for membership in his club, take you down to the corner for a drink and ask you to call again. But go to him and say: “I took first prize at college in Aristotle; I can recite all Shakespeare forwards and backwards; there ain’t nothin’ in science that ain’t as familiar to me as blockades on the elevated roads and I’m the real thing in the way of silver-tongued orators.” What will he answer? He’ll probably say: “I guess you are not to blame for your misfortunes, but we have no use for you here.”
It’s no secret that Obama has had political ambitions since childhood. So after graduating from Columbia in 1983 he was looking for a place to start and in 1985 he found his way to Chicago where he became a “community organizer” for the Developing Communities Project. There has been some speculation as to whether he met Bill Ayers before he moved to Chicago but if he didn’t he probably met him soon after he arrived.
To understand why Obama moved to the Windy City you have to consider what was happening there at the time. In 1983 Harold Washington defeated incumbent Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley (the son of Richard J. Daley) in a three-way primary for the Democratic nomination for mayor.
This triggered a racially-polarized power struggle that was known as the “Council Wars” which pitted Washington against a group of 29 of the city’s 50 aldermen led by Alderman Edward “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak, the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party. The conflict continued until 1986 when special council elections gave Washington effective control of the city council. In early 1987 Washington defeated Byrne in the primary and Vrdolyak (who switched parties) in the general to win reelection.
Vrdolyak represented the old Daley Machine, and Washington was supported by the African-American communities in the South and West Side, the Hispanic communities on the north lakefront, and the “lakefront liberal” communities clustered around the University of Chicago in Hyde Park.
Lets do some math here. According to Serge Kovaleski, Obama was hired by Jerry Kellman to work for the DCP in the far South Side, and he faced skepticism from Baptist and Pentecostal pastors because the top DCP officials were white and Jewish. I’m guessing the DCP officials were “lakefront liberals” too.
While in Chicago, Obama has always lived in Hyde Park, not the South Side communities where he worked. Harold Washington lived in Hyde Park, as does Bill Ayers and Louis Farrakan. Is it starting to add up?
Obama was hired as a “community organizer.” You would think that one of the primary goals of community organizing would be to get people to register and vote, but that goal seems to be missing from all of Obama’s descriptions of his organizing days. I’m guessing that those white “lakefront liberals” that were paying Obama’s salary (and also happened to be supporting Harold Washington) expected that their investment would translate into votes.
During his three years as the DCP’s director, its staff grew from one to thirteen and its annual budget grew from $70,000 to $400,000.
That sounds pretty impressive, and I’m guessing his salary increased commensurately from the original $1,000 per month he started with. So why did Obama just walk away from it all in May 1988? Could it have something to do with the fact that Harold Washington died unexpectedly in November 1987?
Back to old G.W. Plunkitt and his instructions on how to become a statesman. Plunkitt said the key to success was being able to deliver votes. Isn’t that exactly what Obama was trying to do as a community organizer?
If Washington hadn’t have died when he did, don’t you think Obama would have found his way into an alderman slot or something else in the Washington administration? But after Washington died the old Daley Machine regained control and Obama had to regroup. So he left for Harvard law school and during the summers began cultivating ties to the administration of Richard M. Daley.