“Above all things, avoid a dress suit” (George Washington Plunkitt)

Everywhere you look in the news today, you see stories about politicians and what they’re up to. One common theme in all these stories, it seems to me, is that people in politics are untrustworthy and you can never tell what they’re actually thinking. Everything is rehearsed and carefully phrased so that all the public really sees is smoke and mirrors. This definitely isn’t a universal truth, but it has some merit and I think this is the way that many Americans perceive the political world around them in the 21st century.

Photo Credit: New York Public Library

I’d like to introduce you to a career politician from a long time ago who I think is a pretty genuine person. You probably won’t agree with his politics, but he is a blunt man who won’t leave you guessing what his actual position is and what his goals are.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

This is George Washington Plunkitt. A member of the infamous Tammany Hall political machine, Plunkitt involved in New York City and state politics for most of his life. Although he wasn’t quite as powerful as men like Boss Tweed, he was still able to become ridiculously wealthy. He was most well known for what he called “honest graft,” a practice where he would pursue projects that benefited his government, party, and (of course) himself. This usually came in the form of purchasing cheap land that he knew would be needed for public projects, and then selling that land to the government at an inflated price. Plunkitt also took advantage of political patronage, appointments, and the “spoils system” of 19th century politics. “I seen my opportunities” he would always say “and I took ’em.”

Tammany Hall, where Plunkitt and his colleagues plied their political trade. Image credit: Smithsonian Institution, American Art Museum.

But I’m not here just to bash Mr. Plunkitt. In 1905 he gave a series of interviews to a newspaperman that were later published in a cynical, yet incredibly entertaining short book with a long title: Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics, Delivered by Ex-Senator George Washington Plunkitt, the Tammany Philosopher, from his Rostrum—the New York County Courthouse Bootblack Stand. I wasn’t able to find the book anywhere online, but you can listen to the book here on the Internet Archive. He has a lot to say about a variety of topics. I think his ideas are helpful in understanding the motivations and movements that shaped business and politics back then and today.

Plunkitt wasn’t all cynical politics though, he also extolls hard work, sobriety, honesty, and what he calls “plain politics.” He had no patience for people who were focused on appearance and had no substance. In the book, this is usually expressed in the form of bashing college-educated men who didn’t have any common sense and weren’t able to communicate with ordinary people. But enough of me, read what Plunkitt has to say about the dangers of the dress suit in politics:

“Above all things, avoid a dress suit. You have no idea of the harm that dress suits have done in politics. They are not so fatal to young politicians as civil service reform and drink, but they have scores of victims. I will mention one sad case. After the Tammany victory in 1897, Richard Croker went down to Lakewood to make up the slate of offices for Mayor Van Wyck to distribute. All the district leaders and many more Tammany men went down there, too, to pick up anything good that was goin.’ There was nothin’ but dress suits at dinner at Lakewood, and Croker wouldn’t let any Tammany men go without them. Well, a bright young West Side politician, who held a three-thousan dollar job in one of the departments, went to Lakewood to ask Croker for something better. He wore a dress suit for the first time in his hie It was his undoin.’ He got stuck on himself. He thought he looked too beautiful for anything, and when he came home he was a changed man. As soon as he got to his house every evenin’ he put on that dress suit and set around in it until bedtime. That didn’t satisfy him long. He wanted others to see how beautiful he was in a dress suit; so he joined dancin’ clubs and began goin’ to all the balls that was given in town. Soon he began to neglect his family. Then he took to drinkin,’ and didn’t pay any attention to his political work in the district. The end came in less than a year. He was dismissed from the department and went to the dogs. The other day I met him rigged out almost like a hobo, but he still had a dress-suit on. When I asked him what he was doin,’ he said: ‘Nothin’ at present, but I got a promise of a job enrollin’ voters at Citizens’ Union head-quarters.’ Yes, a dress-suit had brought him that low!”

Beware the dress suit, and beware putting your appearance over the other things in life!


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