Thursday, November 13, 2008


Sam Smith

Looking over the seven page questionnaire that the Obama organization has for prospective appointees, several thoughts occurred:

- I couldn't get a job there. Just assembling everything I had ever written or said would take me more than four years.

- Barack Obama couldn't get a job there, thanks to some of his less than elegant past connections.

- I wouldn't want to belong to an administration staffed with people who had passed this test. What a boring, unimaginative and probably ineffective crowd.

This may surprise some readers accustomed to my criticism of public officials. But as a student of political corruption going back to my 12th year when I helped Philadelphia, by stuffing envelopes, to end 69 years of GOP rule, I have come to understand important differences in corruption. Basically it comes down to this: what does the public get in return?

Today, very little. The typical corrupt politician doesn't even tithe to the voters. Instead, like so much of successful American life, politicians - instead of being favored members of a community - have become primarily manipulators of communities - narcissistic, insatiable strivers after personal wealth and power.

Compare them with Richard Daley pere or James Michael Curley, who continued to live in their communities and in the same dwellings for much of their careers. While plenty of people got rich off of them; they would seem pathetically inefficient at the personal abuse of power compared to the pols of today.

As I wrote at the beginning of the Clinton years:

||||| Reform breeds its own hubris and so few noticed that as we destroyed the evils of machine politics we also were breaking the links between politics and the individual, politics and community, politics and social life. We were beginning to segregate politics from ourselves.

As the Chicago alderman Vito Marzullo put it, "My home is open 24 hours a day. I want people to come in. As long as I have a breathing spell, I’ll go to a wake, a wedding, whatever. I never ask for anything in return. On election day, I tell my people, “Let your conscience be your guide."

In the world Marzullo politics was not something handed down to the people through such intermediaries as Larry King It was not the product of spin doctors, campaign hired guns or phony town meetings. It welled up from the bottom, starting with one loyal follower, one ambitious ballplayer, twelve unhappy pushcart peddlers. What defined politics was an unbroken chain of human experience, memory and gratitude.

Sure, it was corrupt. But we don't have much to be priggish about. The corruption of Watergate, Iran-Contra or the S&Ls fed no widows, found no jobs for the needy or, in the words of one Tammany leader, "grafted to the Republic" no newly arrived immigrants. At least Tammny's brand of corruption got down to the streets. Manipulation of the voter and corruption describe both Tammany and contemporary politics. The big difference is that in the former the voter could with greater regularity count on something in return. |||||

Key to the movements that replaced the old machines was not the elimination of corruption but its rebranding as acceptable "reform" or, in today's terms, "economic development" and "globalization." I can guarantee you that any developer will do better under DC's supposedly clean local government than under the old, corrupt Barry machine. The same would be true of corporations dealing with the Bush administration compared to the Eisenhower years. We have learned, at both the local and national level, how to legalize and sanitize corruption.

The other problem with squeaky cleanness is that it doesn't produce particularly good government. With a few exceptions - a long line of capable and honest New England politicians come to mind - the best government has often been the product of a maddening confluence of the good and the bad, the noble and the seedy. Thus, two of the biggest scoundrels of modern politics - LBJ and Adam Clayton Powell - got more good legislation passed in less time than anyone in American history and when asked to name the best mayor of Washington in my lifetime I shock people by saying Marion Barry in his first two terms - before he became a personal wreck.

When Barry began to fall apart, I wrote this:

||||| With Earl [Long] and Willie Stark (aka Huey Long) the mechanics of their politics was even more corrupt than that of our mayor; yet in some mystical way they managed to immunize the philosophy that the politics served from its corruption. Jack Burden, the journalist-turned-Stark henchman who narrates 'All the King's Men,' says at one point, "Process as process is neither morally good nor morally bad. We may judge results but not process. The morally bad agent may perform the deed which is good. The morally good agent may perform the deed which is bad. Maybe a man has to sell his soul to get the power to do good."

Thus you look at Huey Long's platform of the 1930s and wish the current national Democratic Party could do as well. But those were days when you could see and feel political virtue. A new road, a new hospital, tax relief that made a difference. Today politics has become a giant Nintendo game, exciting and convincing while you're playing, but nothing there when you turn off the set. If we drive around Washington we would be hard pressed to find places where we could point and say, "Look, at least Marion Barry did this." There are no Barry monuments, no Barry unfulfilled dreams, no Barry proverbs to mitigate his memory. Yet before we become too moralistic about it, we should remember that Barry was doing no more than playing by the current rules, which state that social programs only need be promised, wars on social ills need only be waged, and virtue only need be declared. Nothing in politics anymore need be brought to fruition. Marion Barry said he never used drugs; George Bush said he would eliminate them. And perhaps Barry learned from the Bushes of America that it really didn't matter what you said. No one would bother with the final truth. . . |||

In the eighteen years since that was written, it's only gotten worse. And that's one of the reasons I look as skeptically and carefully at the "reformers" - most recently Obama - as I do the corrupt. The potential for evil exist with both, the major difference being that with the reformer you don't get enough warning except from a few cynics like myself.

So I won't be filling out that questionnaire and I'm not too optimistic about those who do so successfully. It's like the poet William Stafford said, "When the pond is purified, the lilies die."