Monday, July 15, 1935

“Old Bill” Suggests—

When Lincoln Steffens was investigating political graft in Philadelphia in 1903, he found that the “gang” had brazenly and publicly given away a street railway franchise so enormously valuable that a newspaper, merely as an altruistic gesture, offered $2,500,000 for it. While the papers roared, the “gang” instead of going into retirement, jammed through a regular volcanic eruption of grafting operations. Steffens sought the boss, “Iz” Durham, in frank curiousity as tohow they dared do such a wild, wholesale business.

“You could put over one of these steals in New York or anywhere else,” said Steffens. “But one would be enough to strain any machine that I know of. And five—or more!”

“We reasoned,” said Durham. “We agreed among ourselves that it was exactly the five—or more—that would save us. If we did any one of those things alone the papers and the public would concentrate on it, get the facts, and fight. But we reasoned that if we poured them all out fast and furious, one, two, three—one after the other—the papers couldn’t handle them all and the public would be stunned and—give up. Too much.”

There is a fragment of universal truth in “Iz” Durham’s comment that is as applicable today as it was in 1903. When governmental changes or activities become too bewildering, the public gets brain fag trying to follow them. It is like hearing two experts rehash a game of contract bridge. And once a things is a bore, be it ever so much in the public interest, no newspaper can print beyond the line of boredom without descending to the ponderous innocuousness of the Congressional Record.

The Philadelphia boss might also have in mind the Roman provincial governor under the Caesars, who said he didn’t dare be honest because he had to graft enough to buy public support in order to obtain immunity after his return to Rome.


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