Plunkitt of Tammany Hall is a remarkably honest book about how to get rich in politics and how to succeed in politics. The most famous idea from Plunkitt is the speech about frequent references to “honest graft” and “dishonest graft.” Plunkitt defends Tammany Hall by saying that its members’ wealth is from “honest graft” and not lawbreaking. Running up against the penalty code is for fools. The way to make money in politics is like in the stock market (before the SEC). That is, he explains how he uses insider knowledge to purchase land or other assets (but mostly land) that New York City will be purchasing in the near future, so he can get it at a discount compared to its near future value, and upsell it to the city. By today’s standards, almost nothing remarkable whatsoever; in fact, somewhat boring, except for Plunkitt’s colorful rhetoric.
The way to succeed in politics is to bring votes. He relates the story of how he first stepped into politics, by forming a group of himself and one other person who agreed to vote with him. He invited more and more friends to just form an association with him to vote all one way, and then this became a product he could sell. Getting votes as a party is about doing people favors, not campaigning and sending letters. Getting political mail actually annoys people.
Getting money for what you promise is not a matter of cutting costs but of taxing something that belongs to the other party and using the money for your own people. Getting a political position with the help of a party likewise comes with a promise to donate part of your salary to the party. It’s not bribery, it’s just gratitude. Ingrates do not get far in politics. Loyal people do. A political party is about loyalty to each other.
An effective political machine isn’t an organization of “bookworms.” Intellectuals are brought out for parades, but they don’t know how to run things. A college education will make succeeding in politics harder because everything you learn is useless. People are put in the position to do things they are good at, and nowhere else. Sometimes, no matter how good someone is at something, it won’t matter because their loyalty is to some other place, like Brooklyn. They can also fail if they drink. The .last successful politicians don’t drink, because they need to always have a clear mind.
Businessesmen don’t know what they are doing in politics either, and don’t make good politicians just because they are good at business. Likewise, reformers tend to not stick around, because they don’t know the game. It is cheap to market yourself as a reformer, though, and but your way into politics by starting your own organization from scratch and then tossing it aside once you’ve made your way in.
The theme that runs through Plunkitt’s speeches are his harangues of the “civil service;” specifically, the introduction of tests to enter the civil service that ask collegiate questions not related to the practical matters of politics. This has the effect of wrecking the ability to reward your party members and voters with jobs because they no longer qualify for them. Plunkitt says that this quashes patriotism, because people can no longer serve their country and be rewarded by it. Likewise, when a civil service position is a consequence of tests, the civil servant not longer has an incentive to donate to a party.