Mornin’ Glories Itching for Power

There is never a bad reason to consult George Washington Plunkitt on matters relating to politics here, there, anywhere. The old Tammany sachem understood the attractions of power, and his reflections on how you get it and how you keep it are as relevant today as they were in the glory days of the old New York machine.

There has been some commentary in recent weeks about a development which appears to have surprised some observers. Self-advertised reformers who won power a decade ago in Albany and Washington apparently haven’t changed all that much- and, in fact, they seem to be behaving very much like the people they excoriated when they were pure and idealistic outsiders.

For example, 10 years ago, Governor George Pataki foiled Mario Cuomo’s bid for a fourth term by condemning such practices as routinely late budgets, irresponsible spending giveaways and the odd patronage appointment. But as Mr. Pataki marked the 10th anniversary of his installation, Albany’s chroniclers took the occasion to note that, by golly, things in the State Capitol are pretty much the same. Three men in a room take forever to decide on a budget, then blame each other for the delays. And under the putative reformer’s watch, the New York Legislature was recently named the country’s worst. When one considers the goings-on in, say, Trenton, this is really saying something.

Meanwhile, Republicans are marking the 10th anniversary of their takeover of Congress. Folks with long memories may recall that Newt Gingrich and his fellow Republican revolutionaries promised to put an end to the lethargy and corruption that infected House Democrats after their long hold on power. But now, after wielding power and influence since January 1995, House Republicans are trying to undermine ethics rules because, by golly, how can you raise millions for your campaigns without bumping up against some dumb ethics rule?

Of course, Republicans are not the only fake outsiders and phony reformers who are outraged when out of power and devious when in power. Andrew Cuomo ran for Governor, sort of, a couple of years ago and seemed pretty indignant about the way things are in Albany. That they are as they were back in the days when he was wielding power as his father’s confidante seemed lost on the erstwhile candidate.

From this we may conclude, as George Washington Plunkitt did, that reformers and self-advertised outsiders are merely powermongers looking for a chance to, er, monger their power. Plunkitt was a State Senator and the holder of numerous public offices-sometimes, as is the practice in New Jersey today, at the same time. “There have been reform committees of fifty, of sixty, of seventy, of one hundred … that started out to do up the regular political organizations,” Plunkitt said. “They were mornin’ glories-looked lovely in the mornin’ and withered up in a short time, while the regular machines went on flourishin’ forever.”

In the introduction to Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, that classic book about Tammany’s ways and means, Peter Quinn notes that the Chicago writer Finley Peter Dunne had a Plunkitt-like suspicion of self-proclaimed reformers. Through his alter ago, Mr. Dooley, Dunne wrote (in an approximation of an Irish accent): “A man that’d expict to thrain lobsters to fly in a year is called a loonytic, but a man that thinks men can be tu-rrned into angels by an iliction is called a rayformer an’ remains at large.”

None of this excuses the status quo, but it does suggest that the public ought to regard self-proclaimed reformers with the sort of skepticism generally reserved for, well, for politicians who do not claim to be outsiders or reformers. Politicians who pose as outsiders generally are frauds who drop the reform rhetoric as soon as they achieve power.

Likewise politicians who pretend to loathe politics, who wish to be seen as ordinary outraged citizens intent on bringing decency and goodness to the corrupt corridors of power and might. Commentators often trot out the phrase “anti-politician” to describe some mornin’ glory. The phrase is absurd. Anti-politicians do not run for office. If they do, they are politicians-period.

And yet, local and national governments are filled with fakes who insist that they despise politics as much as anybody else, and that they bear the burdens of office only because they wish to cleanse the system of corruption. The President himself apparently wants us to believe that he’s just another ranch owner from Texas who really doesn’t pay much attention to Washington politics.

Personally, I’ll take a political professional over these posers any day. After all, as Plunkitt might have said, if I’m on the operating table, I want a surgeon who isn’t ashamed of his or her profession. If he or she starts talking about medicine the way that reformers talk about politics, I’m outta there.

On second thought, Plunkitt surely would have said it better.