Commentary Magazine


Topic: politicians

The Grimm Truth About the Political Class

So after years of rumors about improprieties in fundraising, Rep. Michael Grimm was finally indicted today by the federal government on charges that had absolutely nothing to do with the reason he came under suspicion. While others were charged or remain under investigation in connection with questionable fundraising for his campaign, the former Marine and FBI agent was not. But as has often been the case with federal investigations, once the government started sniffing around Grimm’s finances, they wound up uncovering other unrelated misdeeds that may well wind up putting him in jail and perhaps costing the Republican Party a competitive House seat. Grimm’s spokesman may call it a “politically motivated vendetta,” but it’s difficult to talk about politics in the context of what appears to be a cut and dried case of tax fraud and lying under oath resulting from the way the congressman cooked the books at a health food store he opened in Manhattan before heading down to Washington.

But the thing that really interests me about this story is the way it illustrates once again the arrogance of public officials and the way political power has a way of persuading people that the rules they seek to enforce with respect to others don’t apply to them. Michael Grim’s story is familiar in this sense as it resembles those of countless other members of Congress over the years who have run afoul of the law. But just because it is not unique doesn’t mean it isn’t important. What Grimm, like every other public official who breaks the law, teaches us is the necessity of not taking our politicians at face value. If our system is to thrive, accountability, even for those in the public eye who seem to be straight out of a computer program for successful politicians (as the clean-cut former military man was) is a necessity. Grimm is the exception that proves the rule that most members of Congress are decent, hardworking public servants. But anyone who questions the need to send at least a few non-career politicians who are rabble-rousers that don’t go along to get along at Capitol Hill should remember Grimm’s example when asked to treat the political class with deference. He may be an outlier in the sense that there was little doubt about the questionable nature of his conduct, but he is far from the only member of Congress who thinks he is above the law.

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So after years of rumors about improprieties in fundraising, Rep. Michael Grimm was finally indicted today by the federal government on charges that had absolutely nothing to do with the reason he came under suspicion. While others were charged or remain under investigation in connection with questionable fundraising for his campaign, the former Marine and FBI agent was not. But as has often been the case with federal investigations, once the government started sniffing around Grimm’s finances, they wound up uncovering other unrelated misdeeds that may well wind up putting him in jail and perhaps costing the Republican Party a competitive House seat. Grimm’s spokesman may call it a “politically motivated vendetta,” but it’s difficult to talk about politics in the context of what appears to be a cut and dried case of tax fraud and lying under oath resulting from the way the congressman cooked the books at a health food store he opened in Manhattan before heading down to Washington.

But the thing that really interests me about this story is the way it illustrates once again the arrogance of public officials and the way political power has a way of persuading people that the rules they seek to enforce with respect to others don’t apply to them. Michael Grim’s story is familiar in this sense as it resembles those of countless other members of Congress over the years who have run afoul of the law. But just because it is not unique doesn’t mean it isn’t important. What Grimm, like every other public official who breaks the law, teaches us is the necessity of not taking our politicians at face value. If our system is to thrive, accountability, even for those in the public eye who seem to be straight out of a computer program for successful politicians (as the clean-cut former military man was) is a necessity. Grimm is the exception that proves the rule that most members of Congress are decent, hardworking public servants. But anyone who questions the need to send at least a few non-career politicians who are rabble-rousers that don’t go along to get along at Capitol Hill should remember Grimm’s example when asked to treat the political class with deference. He may be an outlier in the sense that there was little doubt about the questionable nature of his conduct, but he is far from the only member of Congress who thinks he is above the law.

Grimm, a repulsive character who will probably best be remembered for an on-camera threat to throw a television reporter off a Capitol balcony for having the temerity to ask him about his legal troubles, is clearly finished in politics. The only political question about this story is not whether he can survive the case (he can’t) but whether the GOP can persuade him to quickly resign his seat and allow them to somehow field a candidate who has a chance to hold onto a district that is one of the few in the Greater New York region where they have a shot as well as a rare example of a genuine swing seat. Considering that Vito Fosella, the last Republican to hold that Staten Island-based seat, also went down in the flames of scandal (a DUI charge that led to the revelation that he was leading a double life), the party doesn’t have a very good track record in picking winners who can stay out of trouble. The fact that the indictment came days after the deadline for replacing Grimm on the ballot this November except by a legal subterfuge is evidence that the Justice Department’s motivations here are not pure. But it also means Grimm’s troubles point to a Democrat pick-up there this fall.

Yet none of that answers the question about why a former FBI agent thought he could get around the tax laws as well as possibly evading campaign finance rules. Perhaps Grimm’s knowledge of the ins and outs of the justice system led him to believe he could evade detection. But there was something in his demeanor when called upon to account for his problems that spoke to a sense that he was a uniquely privileged character who could do what he wanted. That this was a delusion in a 24/7 political news environment may never have occurred to him. As such, he will be branded as peculiar sort of sociopath. But the nature of his office does seem to breed this sort of attitude even among those who are not under federal investigation on both sides of the political aisle.

We may mourn the fact that people like Michael Grimm deepen our sense of cynicism about politics. But rather than lament a mythical lost innocence, we would do well to recognize that politicians are cut from the same cloth as the rest of humanity and are as vulnerable to avarice and sin as the rest of us. Politicians should neither be lionized nor demonized. Rather, what we must do is to remember James Madison’s famous words that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary” and apportion power to our representatives and the institutions they run with care.

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On Public Service and Political Ambition

In his remarks at CPAC, former Senator and 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum said this

I want to win too. I think everybody here wants to win, but unlike a lot of these beltway talking heads, I’m not pontificating. I actually put my neck out there — and just about every other body part. 

Senator Santorum is a man of strong convictions and impressive achievements, including his role in welfare reform and his defense of unborn children. But I think his remarks on this matter are incomplete and to some degree unfair. 

First, on the matter of “beltway talking heads,” it needs to be said that not all talking heads are created equal. Some are worthless, and some are outstanding. And the ones who are good, really good, make a difference. They inject arguments and facts, policies and language into the public conversation that are valuable — more valuable, at times, than what many candidates and office holders offer up. I can also say from experience that the best writers, thinkers and policy experts are paid attention to in the White House, including at the highest levels. So I wouldn’t be too quick to denigrate “pontificating.” George Will has contributed more to our public life than Herman Cain. 

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In his remarks at CPAC, former Senator and 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum said this

I want to win too. I think everybody here wants to win, but unlike a lot of these beltway talking heads, I’m not pontificating. I actually put my neck out there — and just about every other body part. 

Senator Santorum is a man of strong convictions and impressive achievements, including his role in welfare reform and his defense of unborn children. But I think his remarks on this matter are incomplete and to some degree unfair. 

First, on the matter of “beltway talking heads,” it needs to be said that not all talking heads are created equal. Some are worthless, and some are outstanding. And the ones who are good, really good, make a difference. They inject arguments and facts, policies and language into the public conversation that are valuable — more valuable, at times, than what many candidates and office holders offer up. I can also say from experience that the best writers, thinkers and policy experts are paid attention to in the White House, including at the highest levels. So I wouldn’t be too quick to denigrate “pontificating.” George Will has contributed more to our public life than Herman Cain. 

On the matter of those who run for public office and put their neck out: I agree; there’s something impressive about those who run for public office. It can be wearying and often you’re the target of fierce criticisms. It can be quite unpleasant. But there is also a tendency among those who run for office to present themselves as simply and only public servants, individuals willing to sacrifice their time and comfort in order to advance the good of the nation.

It’s certainly my experience that those who run for public office believe they have something important to contribute. But that’s not all there is. For people of a certain personality, the ones who are most often drawn to politics, campaigning and being elected to high public office can be an adrenaline rush and play to vanity. There are certainly worse and harder jobs in America than soaking up the applause of the crowd, to be surrounded by earnest young aides, to do non-stop television and radio interviews, to hold town hall meetings and meet with mostly supportive voters, and be on a debate stage speaking to a national audience. 

In Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, Michael Ignatieff, who was a leader of the Liberal Party in Canada, in talking about the truth of why people enter politics, wrote this refreshingly straightforward account:

The truth might be that you want to lead your country because the job comes with a plane, a house, a bureaucracy at your beck and call, and a security detail of men and women in suits with guns and earpieces. The truth may be that you long for power and enjoy the thrill of holding people’s futures in your hands. It might be that you are in search of posterity. You want to be famous, to be in the history books, to have schools named after you and your portrait hung in hallowed halls. It might be that you want to settle scores with your past. You want to revenge yourself on everyone who ever said you wouldn’t amount to anything. 

You wouldn’t want to say any of this. There are few rewards for candor in politics. What you say – always – is that you want to make a difference. You believe your experience qualifies you to serve. These circumlocutions are the etiquette of democracy, the ritual salute to the sovereignty of the people. The people themselves may suspect that the difference you want to make is to your own life, not to theirs. But they want to hear you say that you are in it for them.

The truth is that most politicians I have known – and by now I’ve known quite a few – are in it for themselves and for others. I don’t mean to point a finger only at politicians; what I say is true of me and of almost everyone I know. We’re driven, deeply and constantly driven, by self-interest, which is not necessarily bad. (See the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiment for more.) 

But in politics, there’s often a pretense. We tend to make it sound as if those of us who enter public life are unusually altruistic and self-giving; as if serving in the White House, campaigning and holding public office, being called “Senator” or “The Honorable” or (if you’re fortunate) “Mr. President,” is the equivalent of taking up your cross daily. It’s not.  And pace Ignatieff, I believe a bit more candor and authenticity about all this would go a long way in politics just now.

In any event, the desire for public service and personal ambition are intermixed in a complicated way. Our greatest president, Lincoln, was also a man of unsurpassed ambition. He couldn’t have achieved what he did without it. Yet he carried himself so very well.   

I’m not recommending politicians turn their campaigns into a confessional or an in-depth exploration of their interior lives. I am suggesting that a good many people would be pleased if, particularly in the hangover from the Obama years, politicians of every party and rank acknowledged what is true, and what we know to be true. The best of the best are in it for us. But they are also in it for them.  

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