barry and bill

When thieves fall in

The genius of the two most recent Democratic presidents, Clinton and Obama, has been to take systemic corruption to the ultimate level — all the way to the top of the federal government. Anybody who’d spent even half a moment considering where Clinton and Obama hailed from — Madden’s Arkansas and the Combine’s Illinois — could have seen what was coming a continent away. A young Bill Clinton hung out regularly at Madden’s Southern Club on Central Avenue in Hot Springs, imbibing the atmosphere of political, er, horse-trading and taking it with him first to the Arkansas state house and then to the White House.

But no, the national media couldn’t be bothered with even the most cursory investigation into their pasts and past connections, preferring to present both candidate ex nihilo as it were, the Man from Hope (itself basically a lie) and the Man from Hope and Change — both, conveniently, with a Compelling Personal Narrative carefully scrubbed of anything that didn’t Fit the Narrative. Biographies of Clinton, for example, make almost no mention of Madden, except in his sanitized guise as a “retired gangster” who’d left Manhattan upon the death of Dutch Schultz and spent the next thirty years doing good works. As for Obama’s past…

(It’s worth noting that JFK also had close ties to Madden, who had been one of Joe Kennedy’s partners in the booze-running business during Prohibition — something that drove Bobby Kennedy’s animus against Madden and organized crime in general. Indeed, since JFK, the only two Democrats not tied directly to organized crime and municipal corruption have been LBJ — who had plenty of other ethical issues — and Jimmy Carter, who remains pretty much sui generis among American presidents.)

And so here we are, with the Obama administration beset by scandals both foreign and domestic, most of them entirely predictable. Where Obama was the night of the Benghazi debacle is the subject of speculation, most of it highly unflattering to the current occupant of the Oval Office given his well-documented Choom Gang past. But it’s the domestic outrages — especially the IRS’s targeting of conservative and Tea Party groups in the run-up to the last election (thus explaining why the Tea Party, which had stunned and frightened the progressives in 2010, was such a non-factor in ’12) — that really sting. The clear message that Obama is sending — whether through force of his famous glower or “jokes” about using the IRS to target folks who displease him — is that his enemies are also enemies of the state.

Like the old-time racketeers, the Democrats can now concern-troll the Right — “nice little business you got there; shame if anything happened to it.” Far from chastening them, the recent revelations are actually a good thing, pour encourager les autres, as Voltaire observed. On the streets of New York during the bad old days, fruit stands got wasted, newsstands burned down, taxi companies that didn’t play ball went out of business — and some folks got icepicks in the backs of their skulls. The rest kept their eyes lowered and their mouths shut; Madden, for example, once shot and killed a man named Willie Henshaw on a New York City streetcar in front of multiple witnesses and nobody saw nuttin’.

On a hot July day in 1931, Mad Dog Coll gunned down a kid in Italian Harlem while trying to take out Joey Rao, who worked for Coll’s mortal enemy, Dutch Schultz. Led by Mayor Jimmy Walker (himself spectacularly corrupt), an outraged citizenry finally demanded action against the criminals on the streets, which eventually led to Dewey’s appointment — although Coll got his from Madden and Schultz seven months later when he was annihilated by a burst of tommygun lead while on the phone with Madden in a call box at a drug store on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 23rd Street. Things snowballed from there as the gangsters killed each other off (Schultz, shot by Charles Workman), were deported (Luciano, who died in Naples) or fried in Old Sparky (Louis Lepke). By the time the war came along, the fever had broken, and New Yorkers no longer lived in fear of gangland.

Today’s racketeers wouldn’t sully their hands with gunpowder or bloody pickaxes, but they’re a great deal more dangerous. The question is: who’s the next Tom Dewey and where do we find him? Or are those days gone for good?