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August 26, 2016

Here's How the Clinton Foundation Measures Up to History's Most Corrupt Political Machine


Donald Trump claims, “It is now clear that the Clinton Foundation is the most corrupt enterprise in political history.” Actually, most U.S. historians bestow that honor on New York City’s now-defunct political machine known as Tammany Hall. But Trump may have a point, since even a cursory comparison of the two organizations exposes a number of similarities.

Like the Clinton Foundation, Tammany Hall flourished in New York City. The Clintons likely set their sights on New York City because of its sordid history as a Democratic political machine—thanks to Tammany Hall.

The Tammany Society was formed as a beneficent association in New York City in the late 1780s. But it quickly embraced politics and increasingly aligned with the Democratic Party.

By the mid-1850s Tammany was the most powerful political force in the city, “conferring immense power on the society’s bosses and allowing them to enrich themselves and their associates through corruption and administrative abuse,” according to George Washington University. Sound familiar?

One of Tammany’s most notorious leaders in the 1860s and ‘70s was William M. “Boss” Tweed, a former congressman and state senator who was eventually convicted of stealing millions in taxpayer dollars. At least he went to jail.

University of Massachusetts, Boston, history professor Vincent J. Cannato explains, “Boss Tweed and Tammany have long been synonymous with graft, corruption, kickbacks, vice, stolen elections, and even violence.”

Even after Tweed, the Tammany Democratic machine continued its corruption and political manipulation until the 1930s, when it began to decline. That decline created a void that would be filled by another organization.

Tammany thrived on patronage. One of the Tammany machine’s functions was to hand out jobs and money (both legal and illegal) to friends and supporters. Ditto the Clinton Foundation.

The New York Post concludes of the Clinton Foundation, “The group spent the bulk of its windfall on administration, travel, and salaries and bonuses, with the fattest payouts going to family friends.”

And Professor Cannato says, “If Democratic voters owed loyalty to the machine, the machine repaid them by providing services—everything from jobs, to help with the city bureaucracy, to free food and clothing for those in need.”

Just to be clear, Cannato is referring to Tammany, not the Clinton Foundation, but your confusion is understandable.

Tammany used immigrants and the poor. Tammany bosses claimed they were helping immigrants, the poor, orphans, widows, and the sick; the Clinton Foundation makes similar claims. It sounds magnanimous, unless you realize they’re doing it primarily for political power.

Tammany labored to help immigrants become citizens and register them to vote—so they could vote for Tammany candidates, of course. Or as Hillary puts it, “We can’t wait any longer for a path to full and equal citizenship.”

Tammany was all about pay-for-play. The recent Clinton Foundation revelations imply that if people wanted access to Secretary Clinton—or her husband or daughter—they had to donate big money. Once they did, the door opened.

The difference is that Tammany was local; the Clinton Foundation took the Tammany model global.

Another difference: Tammany bosses became fabulously wealthy by robbing New York taxpayers. The only access the Clinton Foundation has to government funds—that we know of—is donations from foreign governments. But the Clintons still became fabulously wealthy by “robbing” access buyers through outrageous speakers’ fees.

Of course, Tammany has its defenders, just as the Clinton Foundation does. Tammany’s defenders claim the bosses did a lot of good for the poor and immigrants, even as they did well for themselves. The Foundation’s apologists say pretty much the same thing, though by one assessment only 15 percent of the $500 million the Foundation raised from 2008-12 went towards programmatic grants.

Bill Allison, a senior fellow with the government watchdog group Sunlight Foundation, opines, “It seems like the Clinton Foundation operates as a slush fund for the Clintons.”

But was it illegal or just unseemly? Tammany boss George Washington Plunkitt liked to distinguish between honest and dishonest graft. Presumably, honest graft could be shady and questionable, but not necessarily illegal, and therefore fair game. As he claimed in a 1905 speech, “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.”

Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good slogan for the Clinton Foundation.


This op ed was also printed in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. (08.30.16)


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