“My deepest feeling about politicians,” said W.H. Auden, “is that they are dangerous lunatics to be avoided when possible and carefully humored; people, above all, to whom one must never tell the truth.”
I agree with the first part about the dangerous lunatics and avoiding them, but I don’t see much reason to humor them or protect them from the truth.
Why, for instance, humor the crooks in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly who tried their best to collectively pick our pockets with their illegal post-midnight money grab? What’s the difference, except for the neckties, between the politicians who attempted to pull off that act of organized crime and a gang of hoodlums who are out in the middle of the night sticking up convenience stores?
True, there’s a difference in the amount of the money grab and the size of the gang. In Harrisburg, both numbers are higher. Size-wise, with 253 senators and representatives in the General Assembly, plus their bloated staffs and the assorted lobbyists and other hangers-on who show up each day to try to get a piece of the action, we’re looking in Harrisburg, at a minimum, at a Capone-sized criminal enterprise.
There’s also a clear difference, of course, in how Pennsylvania’s judiciary treats a thug who grabs $200 at a Rite Aid at 2 a.m. and a legislator who grabs a yearly pay hike of $32,000 at 2 a.m., pocketed unconstitutionally by the way in unvouchered expense payments. For the former, it’s jail time for the poor devil if he’s caught. For the latter, it’s a friendly nod and a thumbs-up stamp of approval from the state’s judges so long as they’re included in the money grab.
It’s no different at the national level, except more thieves and more money are involved, as is currently being demonstrated in the ever-growing corruption probe into the allegations of wide-ranging fraud and bribery on Capitol Hill by super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
In his pay-to-play game, Abramoff, as it’s alleged, raked in multimillion-dollar fees from his clients, including tens of millions from casino-rich Indian tribes, in order to buy the votes of Washington’s politicians on policy matters and contracts in a way that was designed to generate a highly profitable flow of public dollars into the coffers of the aforementioned clients.
In this “government-to-the-highest-bidder” manner of running things, the lobbyists get rich, the paying clients get their rich contracts, the purchased politicians get their gifts, bribes and campaign donations, and the rest of us get stuck picking up the tab in the form of a corrupted government, inflated costs and higher taxes.
Correctly, P.J. O’Rourke, more than a decade ago, called such a government “a parliament of whores.” Today, commenting on the Abramoff bribery scandal, Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican congressman, says, “A lobbyist can’t be corrupt unless he has someone to bribe, and we’ve created a culture that just breeds corruption.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had much the same analysis, warning that politicians will try to get off the hook for their part in the corruption by making Abramoff the scapegoat. “You can’t have a corrupt lobbyist unless you have a corrupt member and corrupt staff,” said Gingrich. “This was a team effort.”
And the team had no shortage of players from both sides of the aisle. On the national level, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics, Republican campaign groups received $1.24 million from sources linked to Abramoff since 1999, while Democratic groups got $844,000 during the same period.
Washington Post staffers Susan Schmidt and James Grimaldi recently reported on how Abramoff operated in Washington: “Jack Abramoff liked to slip into dialogue from ‘The Godfather’ as he led his lobbying colleagues in planning their next conquest on Capitol Hill. In his favorite bit, he would mimic an ice-cold Michael Corleone facing down a crooked politician’s demand for a cut of Mafia gambling profits.”
The playacting provided insight into how Abramoff saw himself, write Schmidt and Grimaldi, i.e., as “the puppet master who pulled the strings of officials in key places.”
Theodore Roosevelt had it right a century ago: “When they call the roll in the Senate,” he stated, “the senators do not know whether to answer ‘present’ or ‘not guilty.'”
Or as Socrates put it more than 20 centuries earlier: “I was really too honest a man to be a politician and live.”