The Wrongdoers

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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.”