- Historic Sites
Corruption must be fought in ways that preserve fairness and freedom. Otherwise the reformers can be as bad as the rascals.
December 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 8
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.”