Tom Pendergast Gives Good, Rotten Government

Westbrook Pegler

El Paso Herald/February 21, 1938

KANSAS CITY, Feb. 21.—Here is a paradox for you. Tom Pendergast, the Democratic boss of Kansas City, gives good, rotten government, and runs a good, rotten city whose conventional Americans o the home-loving, baby-having, 100-per-cent type, live on terms of mutual toleration with wide-open vice and gambling.

Kansas City has been described as an overgrown trading post on the frontier, but that figure does justice to neither the facts nor the town. She is not a post at all, but a great city whose reputation has suffered from the inclusion in her name of “Kansas,” a word signifying thin-lipped social bleakness, prohibition, and an aversion to the pleasures of others. Kansas City is more like Paris. The stuff is there, the gambling joints and the brothels, including among the latter, a restaurant conducted in imitation of that one in Paris, more haunted by American tourists than the Louvre, where the waitresses wear nothing on before and a little less than half of that behind. But, like the Parisians, the people of Kansas City obviously believe that such things must be and, like the Parisians, are proud of their own indifference.

Their Side of the Story

Mr, Pendergast is an old-time saloon-keeper, and similar in some respects to Frank Hague of Jersey City. He is religious, rich and a benevolent despot in his relations with his loyal subjects, but he lacks Hague’s vindictiveness toward those who have the audacity to fight him. They differ again in their attitude toward prostitution, for Hague will not tolerate the business at all, whereas Pendergast treats it as part of the routine commerce of a big city.

His men claim that he absolutely refused to let his organization accept any graft, or “lug” as it is locally known, from prostitutes or brothel keepers, and would break any subordinate who should, but, of course, that is only their side of the story, hard enough to believe in any case, but the more so when the same men claim that he also forbids the collection of any “lug” from the gamblers.

Although he put off his apron and laid aside his beer mallet long ago, Mr. Pendergast is still operating in liquor and beer, being agent for various lines of merchandise, which naturally enjoy a strong preference in the cafes and saloons of the merry city on the edge of the Kansas desert. He generally permits other brands to be sold, but the loyal saloonkeeper knows whose line of grog and brew is worse.

Argues for His Concrete

Mr. Pendergast also sells ready-mixed concrete in vast quantities for public and private works, but at any suggestion of  monkey business, he is prepared to argue that his concrete is good concrete, and that his prices are the lowest and his facilities the best.

The police force is entirely political, every cop is beholden to some leader for his job, and removable or otherwise punishable on demand of the same one who appointed him, subject, however, in extreme cases, to Mr. Pendergast’s decision on appeal. The firemen are similarly situated. The individual cop could never have the audacity to demand money from a gambling-house keeper, for example. The operator would thing he was crazy. He doesn’t have to bother with cops. He does business with the organization, and a policeman might as well try to shake down the Santa Fe Railroad or a big department store.

But in spite of all this Mr. Pendergast runs a good town, with efficient public services and with comparatively little violent crime. Kansas City has adopted the old St. Paul and Toledo system of permitting criminals to relax and frolic without molestation, with the understanding that their activities while in town must be entirely social.

Of course, the machine will steal an election if necessary or just for practice. Sometimes the boys steal when there is no need and some outlandish totals have been rolled up when it would have been wiser to stand on an honest plurality.

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