May 8, 2012

Learn from Roscoe

I posted this yesterday at The Albany Project, thinking that it was mainly about state and maybe national issues. There isn't, even in the wildest extremist fever dreams, a political machine in these parts that can compare with the O'Connell/Corning machine in Albany. (Erastus Corning 2nd was Mayor of Albany from 1942 to his death in 1983.)

On reflection, though, Roscoe's lament here is less about the machine specifically and more the perspective of someone justifying his power. I keep hearing echoes of the gas companies' PR in this griping about those utopians, clearly imperfect themselves, who dare challenge a system built on power and avarice.

It's worth contemplating, whatever level or kind of politics you deal with. Learn from Roscoe, but don't become Roscoe.

No, not the how-to of cheating at cockfighting or fixing elections. Roscoe, William Kennedy's 2002 classic of Albany politics, certainly explores all that, but mostly it's a study of a man deeply embedded in a political machine. Roscoe Conway helped build it, profited by it, and now mostly wants to retire - but can't. The machine needs him, for now, even if its participants don't all realize it.

Roscoe is a scoundrel, and even he seems aware of it, though he continues nonetheless. His journey through post-WWII Albany illustrates how the machine works, how it justifies its work, and how the social ties of political relationships sustain it especially when it's under attack.

Roscoe is always thinking about this, but rarely brings it all to the surface. One paragraph, describing a photo of Jimmy Walker, Roscoe, and his comrade-in-the-machine Patsy, though, gives a taste:

This is a war photo: three warriors marching into combat against what Roscoe calls the Morality Plague...

The Plague comes out of oblivion every seven or so years and, like the locust, builds its white houses in public cemeteries, and propagates, with evil simplicity, "truth" and "honesty" as political virtues. This has the popular appeal of chocolate, the distorting capacity of gin.

But Roscoe wonders: Since when has truth been a political virtue? Can you name one truth that is everywhere welcome? Certainly there are none in play in any quest for, or defense of, political power - Jimmy's for instance - for power is based in the deep comprehension and perverse love of deception, especially self-deception, and any man who seeks power through truth is either a fool or a loser.

Roscoe knows of no candidate's ever making a campaign pledge to reveal all his own self-inflation, all those covetous, envious, lascivious, venal, and violent motives that drive every move he ever makes in politics and will continue making if elected. Roscoe certainly did not invent the perverse forces that drive human beings and he can't explain any of them. He believes they are a mystery of nature.

He concedes that a morally pure society, with candidates unblemished by sin and vice, might possibly exist somewhere, though he has never seen or heard of one, and can't really imagine what one would look like. "But I'll keep looking," he concludes. (page 235, paragraph breaks added)

This is a painfully familiar cynicism, echoed in the hallways of power regularly. "We are flawed," it says, and denies that any improvement on those flaws is possible, unless perhaps an impossible utopia springs up. It questions the right of reformers to ask for more of their elected officials. It assumes that the greater knowledge - indeed the cynicism - of those already in power outweighs any possible claims to political virtue of those outside the machine.

Of course, it stands ready to welcome those willing to play its games, and machine politics have a long history of absorbing reformers, turning the last decades's reforming challengers into next year's old guard. Sometimes it can apply its power to defeating reform challengers, and other times it's had to stand aside and wait for the Morality Plague, as Roscoe puts it, to run its course.

Kennedy's Author's Note at the end reminds us that "This is a novel, not history", but like all of his Albany novels, he does an excellent job of capturing a time and a place and a city in ways that usually elude historians. I didn't read Roscoe expecting biographies of Mayor Corning or Dan O'Connell, and I wonder if they experienced quite as much drama as Kennedy presents here. Perhaps.

Roscoe's lessons aren't limited to Albany the city, either. They still apply today - minus many of the exciting period details - to Albany the state capital. Somehow I wasn't surprised to find Assemblyman Jack McEneny listed in the acknowledgments. After all, beyond his interest in history, a decade after Roscoe was written, he was the Assembly's face on LATFOR, continuing a long tradition of selling out the voters in favor of privileging those already on the inside through creative redistricting.

Roscoe has a lot to teach us reformers. Read it, weep, and know your opponent. It took me years to make myself finally read it. It was worth it.

Posted by simon at May 8, 2012 12:17 PM in ,
Note on photos