Thomas Nast drew the above cartoon for Harper’s Weekly in August 1871 as a slam against rampant graft by New York City’s political boss William M. Tweed. Easily the most corrupt politician in American history, Tweed (the big fat man with the huge diamond chest pin in the drawing) and his circle stole an estimated $200 million from the city (billions in modern money) during their brief reign in power, a record that stands even today.
The New York Times that summer of 1871 got its hands on a stolen copy of the Tweed Ring’s account books, which it published on its front page. The disclosure — considered the newspaper Scoop of the Century back then – demonstrated that huge thefts had taken place, but failed to connect them to individual names. Nast, in his cartoon, simply asks: “Who Stole the People’s Money?” and every member of the Tammany Ring – Tweed, his top henchmen, city contractors, and the rest – points to the one next to him and his “Twas him.”
|Thomas Nast, the brilliant young artist whose Harpers Weekly
cartoons helped do in Boss Tweed’s political machine.
Ultimately, further detective work would trace the stolen money directly to Tweed’s personal bank account, and Tweed would spend much of his final years in various prisons.
All of which brings us to the humiliating spectacle being played out this week in the United States Congress, dragging the US literally to the brink of default by its failure to lift the technical debt ceiling before borrowing authority runs out on August 2. This remarkable, breath-taking act of political incompetence — the question of who is right or wrong on the underlying policy issues became moot long ago — is a financial crime almost as bad as that of Tweed and his cronies. A US default or credit downgrade will affect people across the country far more cruelly than anything Tweed did.
Yet ask any of today’s political leaders about it, and the answer is the same: Don’t blame me. Somebody else did it. It’s not my fault.
I think Tom Nast’s 1871 cartoon perfectly captures the situation in Washington, D.C. today, with a two minor changes:
- The caption should be: “Who drove the country into bankruptcy? — Do tell.”
- And instead of Tweed and his Tammany cronies, the faces in the circle should include Obama, John Boehner, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, the Tea Party zealots, the media talking heads, Democrats and Republicans, Wall Street bankers, and don’t forget George W. Bush.
The fact is, today’s political crisis is everybody’s fault. They all did it together. And now nobody takes responsibility. (Though, as I write this on Friday morning, July 30, Senate leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) is trying to move a last-minute plan, after the House last night failed to pass Speaker John Boehner’s last attempt.)
Sorry for the rant. Hopefully the weekend will bring better news on this front.