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The Wrongdoers

July 2024
6min read

Corruption must be fought in ways that preserve fairness and freedom. Otherwise the reformers can be as bad as the rascals.

One balmy summer morning this year the headlines sang a song of scandal. GINGRICH’S PAY TO AIDES IN 2 RACES RAISES QUESTION OF RULE BREAKING, said one. That’s the Republican whip of the House of Representatives they were talking about. He may have used federal money to pay his campaign workers; he may have taken improper contributions.

Predictably, and not entirely without cause, Gingrich will complain that he is the victim of partisan vengeance. He himself, last year, sparked an investigation of charges that the then Speaker of the House, Jim Wright—a Texas Democrat—garnered illegal contributions disguised as royalties on a published collection of his speeches.

Over at the Executive Mansion things were not necessarily more sanitary. EX-SENATOR LOBBIED H.U.D. AND DISCUSSED BUSINESS DEAL , announced the very same Page One. George Murphy, an ex-senator from California and old friend of Ronald Reagan, apparently helped persuade a senior federal housing official to steer millions of dollars in assistance to some Boston housing projects. It was the way a lot of business was done in the Reagan administration. 1 recognize the risk of unfairness and bias in any judgment on very recent events. But given the fact that Reagan’s National Security Advisor, Environmental Protection Agency head, Secretary of the Interior, chief political consultant, and Attorney General all resigned, were indicted, or at least were intensely investigated on various charges of favoritism and influence peddling, the very least that can be said is that the White House did not sufficiently discourage the notion that profiting from public office was acceptable.

Are we, as a leftist might say, at the sordid end point of a long period of celebrating the fast private buck at the expense of public necessities? Or, as a conservative could insist, reaping the harvest of a couple of decades of cultural permissiveness? Are we seeing more crookedness simply because winning public office costs so fearfully much in this age of billions? Or is the apparent carnival of corruption an exaggeration, a by-product of media sensationalizing and a newer, tougher kind of politics that is trying to criminalize the trading of favors, which is a part of normal party politics?


There’s no pat historical answer, of course, although “all of the above” is a safe and partially truthful response. But a whirlwind review of the evidence suggests that official wrongdoing in the pursuit of gain is deep-rooted in our experience (which does not, I hope I needn’t say, excuse it). The annals of American corruption are long and juicy. They are also sobering.

Consider just a very few highlights, starting with the Revolution, when George Washington complained: “Such a dearth of public spirit, and want of virtue, such stock jobbing and fertility in all the low arts to obtain advantages of one kind and another, I never saw before, and pray God I may never be witness to again.” Now leap forward to the thirty years before the Civil War. It was the golden age of Congress, when oratorical giants walked on Capitol Hill. Among them were the great trio of Webster, Clay, and Calhoun—and all three (plus some fifty-odd other members of House and Senate) accepted personal loans from the Second Bank of the United States, which Congress had created by charter and was supposed to oversee.

Move along to the Grant era, 1869–77. It is a historical commonplace that the hero of Appomattox presided over two scandal-ridden administrations during which, among other things, a “whisky ring” cheated the government out of tax revenues and his Secretary of War made under-the-table sales of profitable licenses to trade with the Indians. At the start of Grant’s second term, Congress was rocked by the Crédit Mobilier scandal. In this one a construction company ripped off the Union Pacific railroad, whose treasury was partly filled with the proceeds of loans and land grants made by the United States government. Anxious to avoid close scrutiny, the company’s directors distributed what were de facto free shares of stock to a number of members of Congress (including one former Vice-President and one future President). House and Senate investigations were held, scoldings administered, and two congressmen chosen as scapegoats and expelled. I’ve always enjoyed in particular the farewell apologia of one of them, Oakes Ames of Massachusetts. “My offense,” he said, is that “I have risked reputation, fortune, everything on an enterprise of incalculable benefit to the government … [and] that I have had friends, some of them in official life, with whom I have been willing to share advantageous opportunities of investment.” Incidentally, the same Congress that purged itself by expelling him voted one week later to double its salary retroactively for two years and then adjourned. But after all, this was a time of which Mark Twain wrote that the dominant philosophy was: “Get money. Get it quickly. Get it in abundance. Get it in prodigious abundance. Get it dishonestly if you can, honestly if you must.”

Fast-forward again to the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. Corruption and the need to clean house had become central issues of national politics. Progressives railed against entrenched state-house rings like those of Boies Penrose in Pennsylvania, Joseph B. Foraker in Ohio, and Tom Platt in New York. At the national level a muckraking writer, David Graham Phillips, denounced Senate corruption in his sensational series of articles, The Treason of the Senate . He found that senators were notoriously receptive to corporate lobbyists and that a number of them were millionaires who had bought their seats. (One result of the outcry was the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment, effective in 1913, which provided that senators be elected directly by the people instead of by state legislatures.)

And then we come to the Harding administration. Its best-known fall from grace, the Teapot Dome affair, saw the Secretaries of the Navy and the Interior collude in turning over naval oil reserves to private drillers. But the President’s pals, the “Ohio Gang,” also illegally sold liquor permits, alien property seized in World War I, and Veterans’ Administration hospital supplies.

Lest I be accused of focusing too much on Republican misdeeds, I enter into the record that Harry Truman’s administration produced convictions of fraud in the Bureau of Internal Revenue, evidence of influence peddling on the part of his military aide and close friend, Brig. Gen. Harry H. Vaughan, and accusations of corruption in many of the federal regulatory agencies.

Sometimes the serious and the trivial intermingle. In 1958 President Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Sherman Adams, had to resign because he took the gift of a vicuna coat from a businessman. The principle was sound enough, but the offense seems small-scale in comparison with other outrages involving presidential assistants before and after, especially the Watergate and Iran-Contra affairs. But I pass over these last two because power, rather than money, was their object.

For a final look at Congress since the 1960s, here is a very condensed and partial list of misdeeds: “Bobby” Baker, secretary to the Senate majority, convicted of fraud and conspiracy in 1967; Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., expelled from the House for diverting public money to his private pleasures in 1967; dozens of Congressmen found to have taken gifts from Tongsun Park, a South Korean businessman, in 1978. And, between 1980 and 1982, the exposure and punishment of six representatives and one senator who had incautiously taken bribes from undercover FBI operatives in a “sting” operation labeled Abscam.

Corruption must be fought in ways that preserve fairness and freedom. Otherwise the reformers can be as bad as the rascals.

I do not offer this list in a spirit of either historical resignation or cynicism. Governmental corruption—or at least the temptation to it—is always with us, but it can be fought, and needs to be fought in the interests of fairness and freedom. But only in ways that preserve fairness and freedom. Otherwise the reformers can be as dangerous as the rascals. One way to keep those who govern honest, of course, is to make sure that they do not get too much unsupervised power.

Which brings me back to those superb and comforting realists, the architects of the Constitution, and their designs for limited, responsible, controlled government. They knew that corruption was not only possible but likely in a growing nation full of opportunities to get rich. They said as much very often at the Constitutional Convention. “Sir, there are two passions which have a powerful influence on the affairs of men,” announced Benjamin Franklin. “These are ambition and avarice.” Give officeholders too much preeminence, he argued, and “the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits … will thrust themselves into your Government.” Elbridge Gerry was wary of assemblies chosen by popular vote. In his native Massachusetts, he said, “the worst men get into the legislature.” Alexander Hamilton was eager to keep any one class from dominance. “Give all power to the many,” he warned, “they will oppress the few. Give all power to the few, they will oppress the many.” James Madison worried about congressmen voting their own salaries. “It would be indecent to put their hands into the public purse for the sake of their own pockets.” Delaware’s John Dickinson, denouncing a proposed property qualification for office, fretted over “interweaving into a Republican constitution a veneration for wealth.”

In the end they came up with the checks and balances that we are familiar with, so that corruption, if it could not be conquered, could at least be guarded against. The Constitution forthrightly expects human imperfection and does its best to use it to advantage. “If men were angels,” James Madison once said, “no government would be necessary.” And when someone asked him on another occasion how he could propose to establish a government on the basis of human frailty, he replied: “I know of no other.”

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