“If it wasn’t for graft, you’d get a very low type of people in politics, men without ambition, jellyfish!”
– The Great McGinty, 1940, One of the best movies ever made about politics
The layers are endless. This morning I was sifting through reports on UN “misconduct,” with a Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac congressional hearing playing on C-Span in the background, and in comes a news flash that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and one of his aides have been arrested on federal corruption charges, including allegations that in a profanity-laden spree of criminal wheeling-and-dealing they bleep-ing tried to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat.
This is way beyond a three-ring circus. The AP offers a handy rundown of governors who have run foul of the law over the decades, including three previous Illinois governors who over the past 35 years have done jailtime.
Politics is a constant carnival, in which just a few of the recent acrobatics include –please note that all should be considered innocent unless actually convicted of something — Sen. Ted Stevens with his home renovations, Rep. William Jefferson with his cash in the freezer, Rep. Charlie Rangel under an ethics investigation by the House, former New York governor Eliot Spitzer with his furtive recreational interests, and that timeline of Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac executives who collectively raked in hundreds of millions in pay, and are still collecting millions every year in pensions, for steering implied taxpayer mortgage guarantees — and the financial markets — right off a cliff.
On the bright side, it’s all a great excuse to get hold of The Great McGinty, and watch Preston Sturges in the starring role enact the rise and fall of a corrupt politician — from a foot-soldier of fraud at the ballot booth, to a bagman for the mob boss, to crooked mayor, to governor of a state. McGinty’s sole and fatal mistake is that having reached the governor’s mansion, he has the audacity to try to turn honest.
We can at least credit the American system that a certain amount of corruption does come to light, and even high-ranking politicians sometimes get punished. The same far too rarely applies, for instance, at the diplomatically immune UN (which is basically nothing but a huge gang of governments), or among the ranks of its more despotic– and not coincidentally — most corrupt member states.
On the darker side, the Illinois political machine, with its industrial-scale output of graft scandals, offers Americans a thumping reminder of the basic nature of politics, and danger of big government. Power corrupts, and the bigger the government and greater the license for politicians to meddle in our lives, the broader the opportunities for corruption — which steals from us all. That’s one of the best reasons for keeping government small.
President-elect Obama does not figure in today’s complaint against Blagojevich, except by way of his empty Senate seat, which Blagojevich (in a line that would fit right into The Great McGinty) according to the affidavit described as “a [bleeping] valuable thing — you just don’t give it away for nothing.”
But as Obama gins up programs for the vast expansion of a federal bureaucracy already monstrously swollen on President Bush’s watch, the Blagojevich case sounds a warning. Government enjoys the power to coerce, to take away, to dole out, to restrict, to permit — and with every moving part of that machine come opportunities for graft. With every move to create a Car Czar, giant new public works programs, a colossal dole, and state controls over every act of combustion, come fresh openings for corruption. It would be a big mistake to bank on changing human nature; the only real answer is to try in whatever ways possible to keep government down to a modest size. In today’s political climate, that may sound absurd, and hopelessly unrealistic. It bears repeating, nonetheless, because it is true.