Tag Archives: Federal government

Caveat Emptor: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Political Corruption

Two men waiting in line for a handout from a government official while behind a fence around the Capitol
Two men waiting in line for a handout from a government official while behind a fence around the Capitol.

Economic turmoil created heavy doubt in civil servants in 1930’s Dallas. Political scandals didn’t help the federal government’s case when trying to win over the good hearted people of Dallas, Texas. The Dallas Morning News’ 1933 editorial “Civil Service Needed” is an outcry against the job buying problem in political machines. Knott’s political cartoon, “Caveat Emptor,” perfectly captures political bosses ripping off Congressmen in a back alley deal. Knott’s humorous insight and the Dallas Morning News sheds light on corruption at the federal level.There are many factors that prelude to the punchline in Knott’s cartoon. Political machines created problems long before 1933, such as the Tweed Ring of the late 19th century (Kennedy 473). Progressive legislation from the Theodore Roosevelt Administration simmered down political machines (Jackson); however, with FDR’s New Deals creating about three million empty jobs at the state and local levels (Kelber), the system began to pick up some more momentum. Traditionally with this form of corruption, people at the lower rung of the machine would give funds and votes to a certain candidate. A newly elected and corrupted official would then rig legislation to give jobs and contracts to contributors to his campaign, cutting out the poor souls who believed in hard work over money. Now with such a large increase in government owned jobs in Depression era America, who was to determine the allocations of these jobs? Enter newly surcharged political machines, ready to give out jobs to the highest bidder.

The good folks of Dallas, Texas weren’t so keen on government handouts made by the political machines. An November 3rd 1933 editorial in the Dallas Morning News titled, “Civil Service Needed” strongly urges, “the wider need of civil service in state employment” The editorial serves as a response to new revelations of campaign solicitation within the Treasury Department (Dallas Morning News 18), which slides perfectly into the definition of political machines. According to the Editorial, corruption can’t be eliminated until change has been brought at the highest level, a burning need for legislation that penalizes political machines higher and higher. It’s also pretty safe to say the, “evil revelation” of job buying is also shared by the mass majority of Americans, a time where nobody found new jobs in a broken economy.

Knott’s cartoon repeats this message against job solicitation, but allows the audience to laugh at the powerful individuals involved. The young man with his hand in his deep pocket portrays congress. His happy-go-lucky face clearly describes he has no idea what is going on. His counterpart to his left has a better idea of a bigger picture. The cigar, large gut, and authoritative demeanor of the man to the left makes him literally large-and-in-charge in the transaction. Cigar man can easily be related to the political bosses who ran the machines, holding a parchment titled state jobs. He’s not the only boss, the next guy behind him is expecting the same treatment and handout from congress on the right. The fence in the background makes the action in the foreground very wrong, like some back alley drug deal. So clearly Knott is saying political machines are shady, and this process is happening again and again. What’s humorous comes from the relationship between the two parties. In a political machine, the representative is meant to be seen as the guy in charge, as he is the one giving the jobs to the highest bidder. Though the other guys look more aware of what’s going on, after all, “the job buyer is no less guilty of political corruption than the job seller” (Dallas Morning News 18). Very much akin to the image of the communist spy in the war room in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove; two parties who think they have the upper hand, but in the end are still the loser. Knott flips that around because the bosses are ripping off the corrupt congress, instead of politicians apparently selling to the highest bidder.

Can there be any benefits to job distribution? Or does Knott’s cartoon serve as the ultimate warning to corrupt politicians? The cartoon title, “Caveat Emptor” translates from Latin to “Let the buyer’s beware” Although, the machines weren’t so wary against they’re actions, they believed corruption was in the right. The political machines did manage to benefit those who were a part of it, and they were the only way to, “ultimately provide stable and reliable government,” in an already corrupt system (Ehrenhalt). Take Mayor Daley’s Chicago in the 1950s, where his political machine built many jobs in and around the city (Ehrenhalt). So to some Americans, and I guess some politicians, in order to move forward as a nation, jobs must be bought, and loyalty must be seized, and men must appear with big guts and cigars behind fences. There are definitely men such as Mayor Daley who oppose Knott’s opinions, saying he’s just Knott funny. According to machine supporters, if you corrupt an already corrupt system, then two wrongs can make a right.

Political Machines bought and sold jobs like hot commodities during the Great Depression. The desperate American people and general apathetic feelings toward government allowed corruption to spread. Nevertheless, the people at the Dallas Morning News weren’t afraid to show their true colors. Knott’s cartoon made politicians look like the fools that they are, creating humor in an otherwise dark subject.  The impact of the article at the time may have been small, but in today’s world of information, the archives help show how Americans thought in 1930s Texas. Knott was a forefather in political satire, a sign of not only more mistakes made by politicians, but great satirists such as Stanley Kubrick. Both the editorial and Knott’s cartoon make America’s voice heard in an otherwise silenced nation, crying against any form of political corruption, and making fun of those who do.

Sources:

Dallas Morning News, ed. “Civil Service Needed.” Editorial. Dallas Morning News 3 Nov. 1933: 18. America’s Newspapers [NewsBank]. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

Ehrenhalt, Alan. “Why Political Machines Were Good for Government.” Why Political Machines Were Good for Government. Governing, July 2015. Web. 03 Nov. 2015. <http://www.governing.com/columns/assessments/gov-political-machines-positives.html>.

Kelber, Harry. “How the New Deal Created Millions of Jobs To Lift the American People from Depression.” How the New Deal Created Millions of Jobs To Lift the American People from Depression. The Labor Educator, 9 May 2008. Web. 26 Oct. 2015. <http://www.laboreducator.org/newdeal2.htm>.

Jackson, Bill. “Political Machines.” Political Machines. The Social Studies Help Center, 2015. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

Kennedy, Robert C. “Nast, Thomas (1840–1902).” Encyclopedia of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Ed. John D. Buenker and Joseph Buenker. Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference, 2013. 473-474. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 5 Nov. 2015.