One of the reasons we are so disgusted with politics these days is that corruption just isn’t as good as it used to be. Once one supported a corrupt politician because you and your friends got something out of it. The politician got power but partially returned the favor to people like you. And you opposed the ones who took but didn’t give back.
With the growth of television and modern public relations, however, politicians increasingly became optical illusions with image replacing actual record, loyalty, or favors done. Instead of our national legislature voting for a bridge to nowhere, it became itself a Congress to nowhere, filled with people paid large sums to do what campaign contributors wanted. Modest pork barrel legislation was replaced by the massive effects of the Citizens United case.
It has become a time when one gets enough credit just talking about the middle class that you don’t actually have to do anything for it, especially if you’re rushing off next to a $50,000 endowed speech for a Wall Street financial firm. It’s the optics that count, not the reality.
My first experience with corrupt politics was as a 12 year old envelope stuffer in a successful campaign to end 68 years of Republican rule in Philadelphia. Joe Clark and Richardson Dilworth, running for comptroller and treasurer, won and started to clean the place up. It was there I learned that it isn’t always morality that leads to good politics so much as a wise distribution of power. The Republicans could withstand yards of bad editorials but a comptroller and treasurer with subpoena power were something else. Soon Dilworth ran for mayor and won.
You couldn’t hang around politics in Philly in those days without knowing what was going on. And nobody pretended it wasn’t. The polling guy who went into the curtained booth with my aged aunt to pull the levers for her. The FBI agents who visited my politically active father seeking help in a corruption case they were working on. The police car in the back drive being loaded with a case of champagne liberated from my sisters’ wedding reception. These weren’t just incidents, they were the culture.
Later, covering the Cambridge, Massachusetts, city council for the Harvard radio station introduced me to a new variety. That patron saint of urban corruption, Boston Mayor James Michael Curly died while I was there, and on the Cambridge council we still had people like Al Vellucci who wanted to turn Harvard Yard into a parking lot and make Harvard “a separate state like the Vatican in Rome.” Another councilmember told me he didn’t know how he was going to vote on a police and fire pay raise because he figured that each of these fellows was getting a few thousand more on the side. They didn’t tell you about that in political science class.
Then, In the sixties, I became the press guy for then DC civil rights leader Marion Barry. We hit it off and I later backed Barry for school board and his first two terms as mayor. Then I soured on him not because of any great moral revelation but for specific policies I didn’t like. Even before cocaine got to him, some of the city’s big interests were already doing the job.
Modern DC has only had elected mayors since the 1970s and Barry’s first two terms were among the best. The drug problem has overwhelmed this fact, but Barry handled the budget well and he started a summer jobs program for thousands of youths, whereas recently a DC councilmember was found guilty of stealing around $300,000 from a youth program, a small metaphor for a big political change.
But it was never simple. When Barry first ran for his first reelection, two friends and I held a party for him. None of our wives would take part.
I came to call Marion “the last of the great white mayors,” in that his approach to urban politics had much more in common with Mayors Curley, Daley and LaGuardia then with the newer generations of politicians for whom far more money came in but the favors returned to its sources rather than to the average citizen. Corruption no longer required tithing to one‘s community.
One of the ways you can get a handle on these earlier mayors is to check out their homes. Some were humble, some were pretty nice, but part of the deal was you stayed close to your ‘hood. Curley built an 18 room home in 1915 in his first term and was still living their 41 years later when he sold it to for $60,000 to the Society of Oblate Fathers for Missions Among the Poor. Daley died in a modest brick bungalow just a few doors from his birthplace. Young mayor Barry lived for over a decade in a house in the poorer part of town and he still lives in the city’s poorest ward and represents it on the city council. As for Philly mayor Berrnard Samuel, Dick Dilworth once campaigned next to the mayor's home, telling his supporters: "Over there across the street is a house of prostitution and a numbers bank. And just a few doors further down this side of the street is the district police station. . . The only reason the GOP district czars permit Bernard Samuel to stay on as mayor is that he lets them do just as they please." True, but his neighborhood was definitely not the Hamptons.
And it wasn’t just a local thing. At the state level, two classic corrupt politicians – Earl Long of Louisiana and EH Crump of Tennesee did some things you won’t find in average references. Reports Historic Memphis, “Unlike most Southern Democrats of his time, Crump was not opposed to blacks voting in Memphis and they, for the most part were reliable Crump machine voters.” In fact, Memphis Blues was originally written by WC Handy as a campaign song for Crump. By the time, a young Marion Barry of Memphis came along, however, Crump had joined the segregationists.
As for Long, one of the reasons some thought he was crazy because he was registering tens of thousands of black voters. But, as Ol’ Earl once explained, when asked if ideals had a place in politics, "Hell yes. You should use ideals or any other damn thing you can get your hands on."
And at the national level, Adam Clayton Powell and Lyndon Johnson - two politicians of dubious ethics - got more good legislation passed in less time than in almost any other period of American history, yet you wouldn’t want your daughters near them.
Corruption has also been deep in American ethnic and urban progress. Speaking of immigrants, Richard Croker, a tough 19th century county boss of Tammany Hall, said his organization “looks after them for the sake of their vote, grafts them upon the Republic, makes citizens of them." Boston politician Martin Lomansey met every new immigrant ship and "helped the newcomers find lodging or guided them to relatives." James Michael Curley set up nationalization classes to prepare recent arrivals for the citizenship examination. Can you imagine any Texas politician doing that today?
There were, of course, exceptions. Like Providence’s mayor Buddy Cianci of whom
Daid Freedland wrote in the Daily Beast: “His tenure ended when Cianci, who had a reputation as one of Providence’s most active ladies’ men, summoned to his home a friend he thought was having an affair with his ex-wife. (Both denied it.) Over the course of three hours, Cianci poured liquor on the man, threw an ashtray at him, punched him repeatedly, burned him with a lit cigarette, and threatened him with a fireplace log while demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars of payoff.”
But overall, there is little doubt that the system, for all its faults, also gave the poor a boost and helped build the strength of immigrant groups like the Irish.
My first big hint that things had really changed was when I began looking into Bill Clinton’s Arkansas. I had been forewarned by my friend Sally Denton’s book, The Bluegrass Conspiracy, about next door Kentucky in which she described a drug driven corruption that ran from the police right up to the governor’s office. The book told enough truths that once a friendly retired cop brought his gun along for her safety as she gave a book talk.
I found more than a few echoes of Kentucky in Arkansas. Like the drug pilot who said he really liked the state, giving as an example the time he landed in a field and his pick up was a state trooper in a marked car. There were also new scents of old trails I had followed while writing about Reagan and Bush -- back when no one ever accused me yet of being a conspiracy theorist for just reporting things I had found. The droppings of BCCI and Iran-Contra, of S&L scandals and the CIA were in Arkansas as well.
Then there was the $50 million the Arkansas Development Financial Authority sent to a bank in the Cayman Islands, a favorite destination spot for laundered drug money. And the IRS warning other law enforcement agencies of the state's "enticing climate." According to Clinton biographer Roger Morris, drug operatives went into banks with duffel bags full of cash, which bank officers then distributed to tellers in sums under $10,000 so they don't have to report the transaction.
And there was the major drug trafficker Barry Seal who, under pressure from the Louisiana cops, relocated his operations to Mena, Arkansas. Seal would later claim to have made more than $50 million out of his operations. He even had a Navy surplus minesweeper to recover drugs in case a plane went down
All this was even before you got to the governor’s office.
Several things struck me about the Arkansas story. The first was that – unlike Chicago, Boston or DC - the ordinary Arkansan seemed to be getting hardly anything out of it all. The second was that the national public and media didn’t want to hear about it. Some reporters who tried to tell the story even got taken off the case, liberals bought into the Clintons’ “vast rightwing conspiracy” theory even though, in my case at least, the first leads had come from a progressive student group at the University of Arkansas. The third – and most important change – was that facts no longer were worth what they once were. It was all a question of who could create the best optical illusion.
What they call in Latin America a culture of impunity had descended on the country. As I described it:
In a culture of impunity, rules serve the internal logic of the system rather than whatever values typically guide a country, such as those of its constitution, church or tradition. In a culture of impunity, what replaces constitution, precedent, values, tradition, fairness, consensus, debate and all that sort of arcane stuff? Mainly greed. We find ourselves without heroism, without debate over right and wrong, with little but an endless narcissistic struggle by the powerful to get more money, more power, and more press than the next person. In the chase, anything goes and the only standard is whether you win, lose, or get caught.
If this seems too harsh consider that the American illegal drug trade is estimated to be roughly the size of the legal pharmaceutical industry. Yet, as far as one can tell, at least from conventional media, it is the only industry that never contributes to any politicians, never lobbies on Capitol Hill and never tries to influence our political agenda. In other words, based on the silence of the news accounts at least, the least corrupt industry in America.
And, as I found out with the Arkansas story, it was not something you were meant to challenge.
Now the term optics has become one of journalism’s favorite clichés. What something seems is more important than what it is. Instead of modest earmarks and pork legislation we have candidates who get $200,000 for speaking to Goldman Sachs and then go on TV to talk about their concern about “income inequality.”
The press used to love delving into corruption stories, but now, for many, it’s too risky and might hurt access to their sources - you know, those people who give them the latest talking points.
And instead of corruption being, as it once was, a form of political feudalism with a complex set of quid pro quo aspects, today our politicians give back to their contributors rather than to the voters and then tell the TV interviewer about their concern for the middle class.
In 2006, Democratic Representative Louise Slaughter put it well:
I know a little something about corruption. In the late '70s, I chaired the Public Safety Committee in the Monroe County Legislature in New York. And while it may not be well-known everywhere, both Buffalo and Rochester were notorious mob cities, and we were trying to clean up the mob.
And I was taught by the district attorney and the police chief and the sheriff to take a mirror on the stick every morning before I left the garage and look under the car to make sure there were no bombs there…
But today we're suffering the consequences of what may be the worst corruption in the nation's history. . . What we're up against isn't just the shameful work of individuals like these. It's a much broader problem. . .
Over the last five years, the number of special interest lobbyists . . . I believe that when Clinton left office there were 9,500. There are more than 34,000 today. And, in fact, that's 63 lobbyists for each member of Congress.
Now along with the corporations they represent and the numerous Republican legislators that they court, they are now writing the bills that hurt every man, woman and child in this country.
They have infiltrated every aspect of the government. Their money and donations shape the opinions of corrupt lawmakers in a way that public opinion no longer does. . . For example, in 2001, our nation's energy policy was written in closed sessions by representatives of major corporations…. . .
And during the Iraq war, most egregiously, our security has been sacrificed as well as the safety of our troops repeatedly by the lawmakers who handed out defense contracts to their friends, instead of to those most qualified.
More than $9 billion in Iraq reconstruction funds has disappeared into the black hole of no-bid contracts, created by the lobbyists and corrupt politicians. . .
From tax policy to public television and radio programming to the laws that regulate the safety of our drinking water, nothing has proved too precious to avoid being sold for a price.