Francis Bacon, the essayist, great philosopher, and Lord Chancellor of England under King James I, when impeached by the House of Commons for taking bribes as a judge, confessed to his crimes but offered this mitigating explanation: “Yes, I took bribes, but I didn’t let them influence my decision.”
Now I suppose there might be a society in which it is customary for both plaintiff and defendant to make “gifts” to the judge; and if the gifts are of equal value, the judge will have no choice but to make a judgment based on the merits of the case. In that situation, would we really want to say that the gifts constitute a bribe?
I ask this question, not as a merely academic exercise, but as a practical suggestion to our very likely next President of the United States, Hillary Clinton. She might wish to say, “Yes, I took bribes — but they weren’t really bribes because they didn’t influence my decisions. The only thing that ever did, or ever will, influence my decisions is my concern for the well-being of the American people — especially the little people, who unlike Bill and me are not rich.”
Of course the devoted fans of Hillary will argue that she has never taken a bribe. They will remind me that a bribe involves a clearly identifiable quid pro quo. “Do X for me, and I will give you [a certain number of] dollars.” Hillary, they will say, has never done anything like that, and never will.
At this point we need to make a distinction between two kinds of bribes, which may be called (for want of better names) particular bribes and general bribes. A particular bribe is the kind described in the immediately preceding paragraph, that is, a particular payment to a government official for a particular favor. A general bribe is a gift to a governmental official that lacks the criminal element of specificity. You make the gift as an inducement to the official to give you some not-yet-specified favor in the future, or as an appreciation for some not-to-be-mentioned favor the official gave you in the past.
Hillary and Bill have received tens of millions of dollars of general bribes disguised as “speaking fees.” In the history of disguises, a long history (it goes back at least to the time Satan disguised himself as a snake in the Garden of Eden), rarely has a disguise been less likely to deceive anyone. You might almost say that these speaking fees were so transparent that they were bribes disguised as bribes.
If Hillary and Bill got paid for their speeches on the basis of merit, those speeches must have been far and away the greatest ever given in the history of speeches. For they had a far great dollar value than the Funeral Oration of Pericles or Cicero’s anti-Cataline speeches. The typical Clinton speech, to judge by its dollar value, throws Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural into the shade.
Of course the Clinton bribes are general bribes, not particular bribes. They are inducements to Hillary, in the event she becomes president, to serve the not-yet-specified interests of the bribe-givers. And since general bribes are not criminal offenses, Hillary and Bill can say there is nothing wrong with taking these bribes — on the theory that anything that is not criminal is morally okay.
Hillary’s defenders can point out that the entire American system of campaign contributions is — at least when the contributions are really big contributions — a system of general bribery. And so if Hillary is guilty of taking general bribes, so is every other major politician in both political parties. True enough. But this argument doesn’t show that Hillary is not corrupt. It shows that everybody is corrupt.
But the Clinton corruption is far worse than average. For one thing, the Clintons get bribed on a bigger scale than everybody else. More important, the typical general bribe of an American politician goes into his/her campaign fund. The Clinton “speaking fee” bribes go directly into the Clinton personal pockets. They make the Clintons part of the “one percent” that Hillary will be campaigning against. It’s as if Henry VIII were to campaign against divorce and over-eating.