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Becoming a Statesman 

by Robert Herold

Spokane politics and government lack organization. Indeed, we avoid even mentioning the term for fear of becoming tainted. Of course, as a result, candidates who seek nomination, whether to national, state or local office, must figure out, on their own, some way to introduce and sell themselves to an uninformed and largely uninterested electorate. From flyers to doorbelling, our would-be candidates seek to assure through smiles. They promise to be open, honest and efficient. They make vague promises: a stronger economy, an end to poverty. Watch any beauty pageant and you'll get the drift.

Then, once the candidates are elected, not much improves. Even at the local level, where we might think that the association between the government and the governed is closest, we hear silly proclamations from our council members and county commissioners. They say, " I will pursue my agenda," or "I will do the will of the people." Or -- my personal favorite -- " I will follow my conscience."

In the old days, in cities where the term "political organization" wasn't viewed as so much profanity, candidates were defined not by smiles and handshakes, but by their record of performance. Once in office, they were expected to provide the linkage between electorate and leadership. To accomplish this task, they worked very hard.

Let's turn back the clock several more decades and meet the legendary George Washington Plunkett, New York City assemblyman and later state senator. Back in the 1890s, Plunkett used to wax eloquent while perched on his favorite bootblack stand, and his words of wisdom were passed down. The journalist William Riordan "translated" the lore into a book, the subtitle of which is A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics. Our local elected officials should read it.

First, about what not to do. Plunkett says that "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. 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."

If the skyrocket act is bad, what advice does he have for those who want to become "a statesman?"

From the chapter, "Strenuous Life of the Tammany District Leader:"

"2 am: Aroused from sleep by ringing of his doorbell; went to the door and found a bartender, who asked him to go to the police station and bail out a saloon keeper who had been arrested for violating the exise law. Furnished bail and returned to bed at three o'clock.

"6 am: Awakened by fire engines passing his house. Hastened to the scene of the fire... to give assistance to the fire sufferers, if needed. Found several tenants who had been burned out, took them to a hotel, supplied them with clothes, fed them, and arranged temporary quarters for them...

"8:30 am: Went to the police court to look after his constituents. Found six 'drunks.' Secured the discharge of four by a timely word with the judge, and paid fines of two.

"9 am: Appeared in Municipal District Court. Directed one of his district captains to act as counsel for a widow against whom dispossession proceedings had been instituted and obtained an extension of time. Paid the rent of a poor family about to be dispossessed and gave them a dollar for food.

"11 am: At home again. Found four men waiting for him. One had been discharged by the Metropolitan Railway Company for neglect of duty, and wanted the district to fix things. Another wanted a job on the road. The third sought a place on the subway and the fourth, a plumber, was looking for work with the Consolidated Gas Company. The district leader spent nearly three hours fixing things for the four men, and succeeded in each case.

"3 pm: Attended the funeral of an Italian as far as the ferry. Hurried back to make his appearance at the funeral of a Hebrew constituent. When conspicuously to the front both in the Catholic church and the synagogue, and later attended the Hebrew confirmation ceremonies in the synagogue.

"7 pm: Went to district headquarters and presided over a meeting of election district captains. Each submitted a list of all the voters in his district, reported on their attitude toward Tammany, suggested who might be won over and how they could be won, told who were in need, and who were in trouble of any kind and the best way to reach them. District leader took notes and gave orders.

"8 pm: Went to a church fair. Took chances on everything, bought ice cream for the young girls and the children. Kissed the little ones, flattered their mothers and took their fathers out for something down at the corner.

"9 pm: At the clubhouse again. Spent $10 on tickets for a church excursion and promised a subscription for a new church bell. Bought tickets for a baseball game to be played by two nines from the district. Listened to the complaints of a dozen pushcart peddlers who said they were persecuted by the police and assured them he would go to Police Headquarters in the morning and see about it.

"10:30 pm: Attended a Hebrew wedding reception and dance. Had previously sent a handsome wedding present to the bride.

"12 pm: In bed."

Now, this is the actual record of one day in the life of George Washington Plunkett. As for our local leaders: If they could take a page from Plunkett's book, we'd all be better served.

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