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Brooklyn, of course, is a degenerated branch of an old species, big-city bossism, that once covered the American landscape. William Marcy Tweed, porcine inventor of machine politics and archetype of the boss, planted the form into the urban soil in the 1860s. It fed on the peculiar nexus of mass immigration and municipal expansion that arguably defined American life in the half century after the Civil War. Immigrants packed the hostile cities, bereft and beaten-up, and the bosses, often their countrymen (Irish, immigrant, working class), met them with the offer of a simple graft that was the essential component of all machines. The newcomer was quickly naturalized and registered to vote and was given a job or shelter, or, later, turkeys at Easter or hods of coal in winter. The boss, in return, got the vote of a desperately thankful man, a vote that was obedient and reliable. The boss purchased the votes of the neediest with the same aplomb that he sold off city contracts to the greediest. This was no new phenomenon: politics as business, the politician as power broker. But before the ad-vent of the boss, American politicians were understood, conceptually, as gentry, a disinterested class of the educated "best men." Now the politico rose from the tenement.

By 1890, half of America's twenty largest municipalities were run by machines, and the other half were heading that way. Some, like Tam-many under Tweed, stretched their power into the legislatures; some "made" presidents. Most were Democratic, like Boston and Kansas City and San Francisco; a few were Republican, such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; and some, like Albany, regularly switched camps. All at one time or another were fantastically corrupt, profiteering on the staggering urban growth of the Gilded Age (New York's Tenth Ward, on the Lower East Side, was calculated in the 1890s to be the densest human habitation on earth). Bonds, rent, tax assessments, utilities, docks, streets, sewers, public transit-everything was for sale. In New York, the Tweed courthouse eventually cost four times the Houses of Parliament. A Tweed con-tractor charged $2,870,464.06 for a plastering job that should have cost $20,000. Padding every account, the Tweed Ring in a mere decade bilked taxpayers of at least $100 million (more than $1.3 billion in today's money). In Philadelphia, "the city of Brotherly Loot," grafters joked that they counted the take to the chimes of Independence Hall. Courts were stacked, elections stolen. In New York, Hell-Cat Maggie, a "shoulder-hitter," filed her front teeth and wore brass claws on her fingers as she tore into Republicans on Election Day. The brutality reached a high point of sorts in March 1934, when the Tom Pendergast machine in Kansas City (which pushed Truman into national politics) murdered four people and assaulted more than 200 more to secure a plurality of 59,000 votes. "The spirit of graft and of lawlessness is the American spirit," lamented Lincoln Steffens, the muckraker, in a moment of tragic pique. In Minneapolis, he re-ported in 1904, "thieves and swindlers" had even been invited "to go to work" by the police department: "The government of a city asked criminals to rob the people."

Steffens was journalism's answer to the new politics-he was one of the first investigative reporters-and he tabulated for history, in the collection of magazine pieces that he called "The Shame of the Cities," the price of the machines' widening greed. In bossism and bribery and corruption Steffens saw "no ordinary felony, but treason" against the hopes of the republic. "The effect of it," he wrote, "is literally to change the form of our government from one that is representative of the people to an oligarchy." As for the vaunted boss, he was "the product of a freed people that have not the spirit to be free." Steffens soon found, to his dismay, that the outcry made no appreciable difference in the public mind. The people were not ashamed, so long as they got theirs. 

Steffens died just shy of the reforms of the 1940s that undercut the machines after almost a century of sway. Civil-service merit testing, non-partisan elections, the secret ballot, and the rise of the welfare state stripped the bosses of purpose and resources-the federal handout usurped the ward handout-and by the end of the New Deal era, the big-city machines had disappeared or had been balkanized into county operations. The holdouts in New York City-the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn machines-pivoted and adapted, consolidating federal and state entitlements into the "honest graft" of patronage for a rising middle class, with blacks and Hispanics now the recipients of the handout that once drew the Irish vote. This was the model of the Daley machine in Chicago (and persists today under Richard Daley Jr.), as it was also the model, tweaked to fit the sub-urban homeowner, in Nassau County on Long Island, where, as recently as the 1980s, a Republican machine controlled 20,000 jobs. The objective was always the same: monopolization of public money, the starvation of opponents, a total dominion of the ballot box through favor-honest graft that Brooklyn by the 1970s, when John O'Hara was running his first petitions, had raised to the level of art.


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