Posted Wednesday morning, November 23, 2016.
Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna (left) and his crony John “Bathhouse” Johnson, a pair of practitioners of honest graft in Chicago in the 1890s.
Probably wouldn’t really feel any better, but I can’t help thinking it would be better if Trump was surrounded by old-fashioned political scoundrels, crooks, and thieves than by the creeps and weasels he’s taking into the White House with him. Pence, Sessions, Flynn, Bannon, Kobabch, Guilian, the list goes on and will go on---these are deeply troubled and twisted human beings who are working out their personal issues and pathologies through their political activities. Using your office just to line your pockets seems much healthier-minded and, well, normal.
Of course some of these creeps and weasels are thieves too, so there’s that.
Been finding some comfort and amusement distracting myself from the corruption building in D.C. by reading about the corruption rampant in Chicago in the last decade of the 19th Century. Book I’m reading is Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned by John A. Farrell. Still early in the story. Darrow’s only recently arrived in Chicago and beginning to make a national name for himself as a defense attorney. But he’s making his living as a lawyer for the city which means that he’s entangled in city politics and Chicago city politics in the 1890s was not a business for the high-minded and morally fastidious.
So the cast of characters includes all sorts and conditions of crooks and liars, thieves, swindlers, grifters, grafters, sharpers, main-chancers, bag men, coat-holders, ward heelers, influence peddlers, malfeasants, misfeasants, and other types of skimmers and hangers-on with their hands out or in somebody else’s pocket. Then there are the criminals.
Some of the names are new to me. Some are familiar. For instance, I was glad to see a pair of old favorites make their appearance. Bathhouse Coughlin and Hinky Dink Kenna.
Altgeld and Darrow were joined in Cregier’s camp---at least for a time, since things were always shifting as the boys chased the better deal---by the city’s gambling kingpin, Michael Cassius “KIng Mike” McDonald, corrupter of cops and public officials, and the boss of the city’s vice district, Joseph “Chesterfield Joe” Mackin, fresh from Joliet Prison. With them were aspiring scoundrels like MIchael “Hinky Dink” Kenna and John “Bathhouse” Coughlin, a Laurel-and-Hardy pair destined for fame as the “lords of the Levee,” the downtown sin sector. Kenna, a spry, poker-faced little wizard, ran the Workingman’s Exchange, a saloon and gambling den that became the headquarters of the First Ward political organization. In return for a cut of the action, he arranged police protection for the pimps and barkeeps, and in return for votes on Election Day found tramps a place to flop. Coughlin was “a rubber”---a masseur at the Turkish baths---who graduated to the exalted status of alderman. He was known for his elocution and unique dishabille---he wore Prince Albert coats of billiard-cloth green, plaid and mauve vests, lavender trousers, pink kid gloves, and gleaming yellow pumps. Kenna and Coughlin were a team, and they followed the advice of Senator Billy Mason, who told Bathhouse, “You and Mike stick to th’ small stuff. There’s little risk and in the long run it pays off a damned sight more.”
I made the spiritual---today it’d be virtual---acquaintance of Bathhouse and Hinky Dink through their photograph hanging on a dining room wall of the Chicago Chop House where Mrs M and I were having dinner on one of our frequent weekend escapes from Fort Wayne back in the late 1980s. The caption under the photo gave only the briefest summary of their contributions to the Windy City’s legendary reputation as the most politically corrupt town, past and present, in the United States. But our getaways were regular enough that I’d begun to think of myself as an honorary Chicagoan and therefore an heir to its long and storied history of crime and political shenanigans, and as soon as I saw Hinky Dink and Bathhouse in their high collars, vests, and straw boaters---the photograph was black and white, of course, so unfortunately I couldn’t see what color pants Bathhouse was wearing the day it was taken---and learned their beguiling nicknames from the caption, I took them to my heart like a pair of long-lost friends.
Hinky Dink and Bathhouse and all their fellow rogues and scoundrels are fun to read about. But the truth is they were all to lesser or greater extent villains. They arguably did less harm than some of the city’s “respectable” citizens who believed the only reason to have a government was to keep the poor in their helpless place and the working class beaten-down, demoralized, obedient, and grateful for whatever their bosses deigned to pay them:
That was Chicago. The dollar ruled. The wealthiest citizens set the city’s standards fro quiet offices high above the factory floor, or in their splendid drawing rooms. The great newspapers, and their editors, were fiercely conservative. The “good people” sang psalms on Sundays, equipped the local militia with ten-barreled Gatling guns to mow down striking workers, and launched crusades to close down the saloons. “These were church people who had grown rich on running grist mills, plumbing factories, piano factories; they were managers of dry-goods stores, and proprietors of elevators and wholesale candy houses,” said Edgar Lee Masters, another young lawyer drawn to the city. “These were the specimens of odious respectability and...hypocrisy.”
The only right workers possessed was the right to go look for another job. Darrow became famous---infamous---taking on cases in which the forces of respectability were going after labor and its leaders. At the point of the story I’m at, he’s just failed to win the appeal of the anarchists convicted for the Haymarket bombing and about to take on as a client Eugene Debs facing for inciting the Pullman Strike riots.
Bathhouse and Hinky Dink and their cohorts were minor villains in the scheme of things. Paying bums to vote early and often is nothing compared to paying goons to beat and shoot striking workers. They were practitioners of what’s known as “honest graft”, the cheerfully corrupt practice of taking cut of the money they helped get spent on useful and necessary civic improvements like paving roads, building bridges, cleaning the streets, hiring cops and teachers. All for the public good. True. But also routinely done on the cheap with shoddy materials and workmanship with contracts going to cronies, family, friends, and whoever could pay the price to play. Waste, inefficiency, and fraud were features not bugs. The people got sidewalks and schools, that’s a fact. But they also got bilked. Good things were done but in the long run they contributed to the idea that all government spending is on make-work projects that don’t do anything but line the pockets of the dishonest and undeserving and buy votes for unscrupulous politicians. They helped people’ to think they’re saying something true when they say “good enough for government work.” They gave the forces of respectability and hypocrisy an excuse to feel smug, virtuous, and self-righteous in resisting any government program that might raise their taxes. They contributed to the still popular image of cities as sinkholes of crime and corruption and the Democratic Party as the party of giving away “free stuff”. And they helped create and perpetuate a political culture of What’s In It For Me that still makes it hard for the would-be practitioners of good and honest government of good and honest to be good and honest. Having to associate and do business with the likes of Hinky Dink Kenna and Bathhouse Coughlin corrupted Darrow or at least caused him to have to act corruptly from time to time, as well as Darrow’s political mentor and patron, John Peter Altgeld, the great Progressive reformer whom in the book Farrell credits with turning the Democratic Party into the progressive party it is---well, tries to be and, thankfully, often is.
Still, thinking it over, I think I would feel better---a lot better---if I believed all Trump’s planning to do is use his office to make his family as rich as he’s been pretending to be and if the creeps and weasels he’s putting to work weren’t going to work for the forces or respectability and hypocrisy.