Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Sam Smith

A friend recently tweaked me for having supported John Edwards for president. Which raised a familiar question in my mind: why do the bad guys sometimes have the best politics?

After all, Edwards was the only major candidate who was pressing programs that might have eased, though not prevented, the fiscal crisis and the only one with serious ideas about what to do to set the country on a better economic course.

He was also a shmuck who couldn't control his shmuck.

Then there was Lyndon Johnson who once told Richard Burton he reckoned that between the two of them they had screwed more women than anyone. Yet it was LBJ, with the equally undisciplined Adam Clayton Powell Jr. who got more good legislation passed in less time that at any point in our history.

And there is the totally disintegrated Marion Barry, long time mayor of Washington, whose first term still was probably the best for the city since it got partial home rule in 1974.

To be sure, this is not typical of the ill behaved. For example, the Clintons never thought of doing anything significant to redeem themselves. The Clintons were instead the harbinger of the contemporary style of corrupt politician who felt no need to tithe to the people.

Neither does there seem to be any theoretical principle behind all this, save that it is far harder to find bad guys doing good things in politics any more.

Barry, for example, continues to stand out, because he is a holdover from an early age of corruption, in which the politician got little more than power and press, while his buddies and his constituents go the favors and the bucks. While Barry can't even pay his taxes, he is currently under attack for the money he got the city council to give organizations in his ward.

But one of the things I learned while covering Washington for many decades, however, is that the corruption hasn't disappeared, it just had a new name: economic development. As you watched the multimillion payoffs to developer campaign contributors, it made you long for a time when bribes were delivered in paper bags and a politician's misbegotten sex life was more entertaining than a losing baseball team brought to town at the voters' expense to please some pals of a mayor.

Because the media is so heavily into the business of enabling, rather than busting, political myths these days, we repeatedly are encouraged to fall for good looking, nice talking candidates who turn out to be far from what they promised. And we've been taught to accept the idea that the mere existence of a Clinton or Obama is a reasonable substitute for a good political agenda.

But life doesn't work that way. As William Riordan wrote of an earlier time:

"The Tammany district leader reaches out into the homes of his district, keeps watch not only on the men, but also on the women and children, knows their needs, their likes and dislikes, their troubles and their hopes, and places himself in a position to use his knowledge for the benefit of his organization and himself. Is it any wonder that scandals do not permanently disable Tammany and that it speedily recovers from what seems to be crushing defeat?"

Sure, it was corrupt. But we don't have much to be priggish about. The corruption of Watergate, Iran-Contra, Wall Street, Whitewater 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.

Today, we are repeatedly disappointed by politicians who look and talk good and turn out quite the opposite. There's no better formula for detecting this than making personality take a far back seat to the politics. And bearing in mind that sometimes even bad guys do things better.