July 30, 2009


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Money is the root of political evil

Sure, we can trace the origins of our legal system to the stone tablets that Moses hoisted high over Mt. Sinai, but to understand our political morality, we need to dig through Boss Tweed’s coffers at Tammany Hall.

Following his election to the post of “Grand Sachem” in 1863, William “Boss” Tweed turned Tammany Hall into one of the most formidable political machines in U.S. history. Tweed and his cronies in the New York City Democratic Party traded patronage jobs for political favors and rocked the vote by offering aid to wave after wave of Irish immigrants. They skimmed money off the top of city business contracts, and those who benefited from the Tweed Ring’s largesse looked the other way.

No one knows exactly how much money Tweed funneled into Tammany Hall, but historians have estimated the bounty at somewhere between $75 million and $200 million.

Tweed was eventually convicted on corruption charges because opponents in the Democratic Party provided evidence to newspapers, giving prosecutors ammunition to use in court.

The Boss died in prison on April 12, 1878 (nine days after his 55th birthday), but that wasn’t the end of Tammany Hall. No, that was just the beginning.

The walls of Tammany Hall have expanded inexorably, eclipsing the boundaries of our democracy and blurring the lines between political parties.

Even if U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter had sentenced former Democratic State Sen. Vince Fumo to 11 to 14 years in prison for corruption instead of four years and seven months in a minimum-security prison camp — even if Buckwalter had ordered Fumo to pay his victims the $4.2 million that prosecutors claimed Fumo had stolen instead of the $411,000 in government fines and nearly $2 million in restitution going to the state Senate and the Citizens Alliance — it would have amounted to lancing a few dozen boils during a plague.

Buckwalter offered the 66-year-old Fumo a lenient sentence because Fumo was “a serious public servant” who “worked hard for the public.”

Meanwhile, Dick Cheney pontificates with impunity after abusing our Constitution for eight years, and the U.S. Special Inspector General is playing hide-and-seek with $50 billion in Iraqi reconstruction money that may have been misused by senior military officers, according to The Independent (UK).

Meanwhile, former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), 86, is gazing wistfully at blueprints for the “bridge to nowhere” that was cut from the 2005 Congressional appropriations bill, or maybe musing aloud about “the series of tubes” that make up the Internet, thanks to the federal prosecutors who botched his corruption case, and Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano, a 32-year-old Democrat, has refused to step down despite allegations that he was caught taking $25,000 in bribes from an FBI informant. (He was indicted just 24 days into office.)

Corruption persists in American political culture for a multitude of reasons, but some factors are stronger than others.

Pay-to-play politics will be pervasive as long as candidates for public office have to raise money for election.

But the bigger issue is this: “It’s just business” has become the American mantra in every sector of the economy. We worry more about getting things done than the process of production — a logical outgrowth of our exodus from the factories to the cubicles.

In our hypercapitalist world, there are only two commandments to obey: Thou shalt not tolerate inefficency and thou shalt not snitch (unless it’s politically expedient).      

Joel Hoffmann


The truth of that old saw was never more apparent than in the top of the ninth inning at Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field on July 23. White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle had thrown 100 pitches through eight innings. The visiting Tampa Bay Rays had sent 24 men to the plate. Buehrle had set them down in order: 24 up, 24 down, that rarest of baseball events — a perfect game in the making.

Between the eighth and ninth innings, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen made a defensive replacement in center field: Dewayne Wise for Scott Podsednik, who moved to left to replace starter Carlos Quentin.

When Buehrle took the mound in the top of the ninth he was facing Rays right fielder Gabe Kapler. He took the count to 2-2 when, on the 105th pitch, Kapler got all of it, sending a long drive to left-center field. It looked, off the bat, like Buehrle’s perfecto was literally out of the park.

And then, following another tradition that the latest substitution is almost always immediately tested, the new center fielder sprinted for the ball, leapt and caught it above the yellow home-run line, simultaneously colliding with the fence. As he tumbled to the ground he bobbled the ball — but held on. For the moment, the perfect game was saved.

The next two outs followed with little drama. The 18th perfect game in major league history was in the books. Buehrle had done it. The crowd, his teammates, and even the Phillies watching in the clubhouse before taking the field in a make-up game against San Diego, went wild.

This game will forever be known as “Buehrle’s perfect game.” That’s the tradition — give the credit for a baseball game’s results to the pitcher. In large measure, that’s appropriate.

But what would have happened if Wise hadn’t made that catch and Kapler’s ball had continued into the stands? My guess is the near-perfect game that resulted would have been talked about for a couple of hours on SportsCenter and then forgotten.

As is so often the case at times like this, Buehrle might have been pulled for a reliever, and the Internet wouldn’t have been barraged by a billion or so hits seeking visual assurance that the game was what had been reported and the catch was as good as it was alleged to be. (The truth is it was better. White Sox broadcaster Ken Harrelson said that under the circumstances it was the greatest defensive play he had ever seen in his 50 years in the game. It’s hard to argue with the Hawk.)

Buehrle’s press conference wouldn’t have been interrupted by a phone call from the White Sox Fan-in-Chief Barack Obama. (Not surprisingly, Buehrle took the call.)

The July 23 game drives home the often forgotten truth: baseball — like football, ice hockey, basketball and other non-individual sports — is a team sport. As obvious as that sounds, it is often forgotten in the day when individual records are paramount to the media and, far too often, to the individual player.

It takes a team to accomplish a no-hitter or a perfect game. The evidence, or at least the most spectacular bit of proof, is Wise’s catch. I don’t want to diminish what a pitcher does in these situations — and the brouhaha over whether or not the Phils have the pitching they need to repeat as World Series winners is right on target.

In hockey, a goalie is often referred to as having “pitched a shutout.” Football quarterbacks get the same kind of credit even though the game might have been won by a receiver’s spectacular catch, made possible by a lineman’s timely block.

Which brings me back to the opening cliché: there is no “I” in team. I’m quite sure that Dewayne Wise won’t resent the fact that the perfect game will forever be known as Buehrle’s game.

Somehow, somewhere, in the official records, note should be made, in baseball and the other team sports, of those invaluable, Wise-like contributions in games of special significance. Maybe the official scorer should make the decisions. I don’t know, but there’s gotta be a way.

We need to make team sports more about the team and less about the individual. It’s good for sports. It’s good for the kids who learn from them. And ultimately it’s good for the players.

That said, there are three other things that should happen as a result of Buehrle/Wise’s perfect game:

First — people who think baseball is dull should wake up.

Second — the concept of team should be viewed anew, and no longer thought to be anachronistic or secondary to individual accomplishments.

And third — Buehrle should buy Wise dinner or, better still, a new car.