Commentary Magazine


Topic: public ethics

McDonnell Case Shows Character Counts

There are a number of unhappy conclusions to be drawn from the sad details of the indictment of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife on federal corruption charges yesterday. Whether you believed McDonnell was a legitimate contender for national office (as many of his backers did until yesterday’s revelations), he was an able governor and a talented politician who had every reason to look forward to other opportunities to serve his country even if he hadn’t sought the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. That’s over now, even in the unlikely event that he is acquitted of the numerous criminal charges of taking gifts from a wealthy contributor.

One of the facts of American political life exemplified by the McDonnell case is the dilemma faced by all politicians who are not independently wealthy. Lacking their own sources of riches they must raise vast sums of money almost continually and thus find themselves thrown together with unusually wealthy people whose lifestyles are very different from those of the middle class from which many politicians spring. If elected, their duties include entertaining on a scale that is difficult, if not impossible, to manage on the admittedly generous salaries they are paid for holding public office. The temptation to accept what at first may seem kindnesses from their rich friends—who often have a clear financial motive to ingratiate themselves with officials—can overwhelm their better judgment. Though Americans are deeply cynical about the ethics of their politicians, most in public office do manage to avoid trouble. But a certain percentage fall prey to the attraction of easy money and lavish gifts

But rather than merely demonstrating the McDonnells’ poor judgment or the advantages the wealthy enjoy when running for and staying in office, what this episode also illuminates is the importance of public morals and character in our politicians.

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There are a number of unhappy conclusions to be drawn from the sad details of the indictment of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife on federal corruption charges yesterday. Whether you believed McDonnell was a legitimate contender for national office (as many of his backers did until yesterday’s revelations), he was an able governor and a talented politician who had every reason to look forward to other opportunities to serve his country even if he hadn’t sought the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. That’s over now, even in the unlikely event that he is acquitted of the numerous criminal charges of taking gifts from a wealthy contributor.

One of the facts of American political life exemplified by the McDonnell case is the dilemma faced by all politicians who are not independently wealthy. Lacking their own sources of riches they must raise vast sums of money almost continually and thus find themselves thrown together with unusually wealthy people whose lifestyles are very different from those of the middle class from which many politicians spring. If elected, their duties include entertaining on a scale that is difficult, if not impossible, to manage on the admittedly generous salaries they are paid for holding public office. The temptation to accept what at first may seem kindnesses from their rich friends—who often have a clear financial motive to ingratiate themselves with officials—can overwhelm their better judgment. Though Americans are deeply cynical about the ethics of their politicians, most in public office do manage to avoid trouble. But a certain percentage fall prey to the attraction of easy money and lavish gifts

But rather than merely demonstrating the McDonnells’ poor judgment or the advantages the wealthy enjoy when running for and staying in office, what this episode also illuminates is the importance of public morals and character in our politicians.

While we are continually told by pundits and even much of the public that all they care about are results, the perils of modern democracy turn out to place greater emphasis than we might have thought on the need to recruit upstanding people to run for office.

Let’s dispense with the defense being offered by McDonnell and his lawyers that his hobnobbing with a wealthy contributor is no worse than what President Obama or other politicians do while raising money. McDonnell claims that if the government can’t prove that he actually traded some benefit for the gifts he received, he’s guilty of nothing other than poor judgment. But the line between fundraising and bribes is, in reality, a bright one. As much as we lament the influence of money on politics—something that no law or set of laws can ever prevent—or the complicated nature of many of the laws that limit gifts, the rules about what a politician can and cannot do are not complicated. Office-holders can take money for their campaigns but they can’t take personal compensation as a perk of the job. As Byron York writes in the Washington Examiner, the facts about the watches, the cash, and the stocks McDonnell and his wife took from a pharmaceutical mogul are sordid. So were their attempts to cover all this up.

While McDonnell and his wife don’t come off as sympathetic figures in the account presented by the government or even in their own defense, the path of politicians who don’t enter public office with private wealth is not an easy one. The demands on their private purses as well as the fact that they are obligated to spend a great deal of time in the homes of the rich can make many feel out of place. While, as York notes, they can easily cash in on their former status once they leave office, while they are in public harness they and their families must be satisfied with what they have. That is why many talented people who can earn far more in the private sector want no part of politics even without considering the scrutiny and abuse that comes with it.

But it also means those who place their desire for power and their potential to do good above their desire for money or privacy must be made of sterner stuff than the McDonnells. Moreover, the process of selecting candidates also requires voters and journalists who often treat the private failings of candidates as less important than their stands on issues to rethink that notion. As much as we should avoid prurient investigations into candidates’ private lives or treating minor peccadilloes as outweighing an individual’s potential to be an effective leader, public morals do matter. As much as our democracy needs men and women of intelligence and ability, it also needs people of good character. When we ignore that aspect of a candidate, focusing only on the resume, we can — and often do — wind up with scandals, both fiscal and moral, that debase our democracy, undermine the rule of law and decrease public respect for office-holders and thus government itself.

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Why Everybody Hates Eliot

Earlier today, MSNBC’s Morning Joe program provided a public service when it supplied us with an answer to the question that had been bothering me for the last day: why is it that the liberal political and media establishment is so unwilling to give one of their own a second chance? Given an opportunity to sell a national audience on his quest for personal redemption and a renewed political career, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer talked about his regrets about his hubris as well as his desire to return to public service by running to be controller of New York City. But not satisfied with that, Spitzer felt the need to eschew the intellectual arguments for his return to the public eye and tried for some emotion. When asked how he had changed in the years since he crashed and burned in the midst of his prostitution scandal, Spitzer attempted to manufacture some tears when speaking about “the pain” he had gone through. But, like his brief term as governor that was disrupted by out-of-control behavior that involved both public and private misconduct, the effort was a failure. No tears fell.

It was the sort of transparently false and feeble performance that has killed many a theatrical career but it also may have provided something of an explanation as to why the same liberal organs that once lionized Spitzer are now determined to thwart his comeback bid. Hypocrisy is a common failing among the chattering classes—especially its liberal battalion—but chutzpah on this scale in which a fallen pol seeks to use money and celebrity to reclaim his hold on power appears to be a bridge too far for most of them. That was shown today as the New York Times responded to Spitzer’s assault on the electorate with a two-pronged counter-attack. A front-page feature highlighted the dismay of the city’s liberal elites about his candidacy as well as the disgust of labor unions and the business community, and was echoed by a scathing editorial. The editorial made it clear that unlike the equivocal if not largely favorable response to fellow reformed miscreant Anthony Weiner’s comeback attempt, the Times and its main constituencies were prepared to stop at nothing to derail him. The would-be redeemed sinner’s chutzpah is simply too much to take even for the Times. Everybody, it seems, hates Eliot Spitzer.

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Earlier today, MSNBC’s Morning Joe program provided a public service when it supplied us with an answer to the question that had been bothering me for the last day: why is it that the liberal political and media establishment is so unwilling to give one of their own a second chance? Given an opportunity to sell a national audience on his quest for personal redemption and a renewed political career, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer talked about his regrets about his hubris as well as his desire to return to public service by running to be controller of New York City. But not satisfied with that, Spitzer felt the need to eschew the intellectual arguments for his return to the public eye and tried for some emotion. When asked how he had changed in the years since he crashed and burned in the midst of his prostitution scandal, Spitzer attempted to manufacture some tears when speaking about “the pain” he had gone through. But, like his brief term as governor that was disrupted by out-of-control behavior that involved both public and private misconduct, the effort was a failure. No tears fell.

It was the sort of transparently false and feeble performance that has killed many a theatrical career but it also may have provided something of an explanation as to why the same liberal organs that once lionized Spitzer are now determined to thwart his comeback bid. Hypocrisy is a common failing among the chattering classes—especially its liberal battalion—but chutzpah on this scale in which a fallen pol seeks to use money and celebrity to reclaim his hold on power appears to be a bridge too far for most of them. That was shown today as the New York Times responded to Spitzer’s assault on the electorate with a two-pronged counter-attack. A front-page feature highlighted the dismay of the city’s liberal elites about his candidacy as well as the disgust of labor unions and the business community, and was echoed by a scathing editorial. The editorial made it clear that unlike the equivocal if not largely favorable response to fellow reformed miscreant Anthony Weiner’s comeback attempt, the Times and its main constituencies were prepared to stop at nothing to derail him. The would-be redeemed sinner’s chutzpah is simply too much to take even for the Times. Everybody, it seems, hates Eliot Spitzer.

The Times editorial was remarkable in a number of respects. For an editorial column that has seemed to pride itself in recent years on unrelieved stuffiness and terminal pomposity, the paper’s willingness to cut loose on Spitzer in this manner was as refreshing as it was unexpected. The piece lambasted Spitzer and Weiner as “charter members of the Kardashian Party,” who seek to use their notoriety as “the quick, easy path to redemption.” It even referred to Spitzer as “Client 9”—the infamous codename for the former governor used by the prostitution establishment that he patronized—an astonishing breach of the paper’s normally highfalutin tone. Honestly, I didn’t know they had it in them. Spitzer’s odious character is apparently enough to cause even the most hidebound liberal talking shop to lose their cool.

To the Times’s credit, the paper rightly noted (as our John Steele Gordon did yesterday) that his predilection for purchasing illicit sex wasn’t the only thing wrong with Spitzer when he was forced to resign. The lying and the cheating (as well as the illegal money laundering methods he employed to hide his rather extravagant payments to the “escort” service) about sex was bad. But it was not as awful as what he did in Albany as the self-described “steamroller,” which alienated allies as well as opponents. The reason his sexual transgression resonated with so many people is that it seemed of a piece with everything else he did. It made sense that a man who acted like a thug and bully in public would feel the need to purchase women whom he could command in that manner.

Along with Weiner, Spitzer has condemned New York to what the Times rightly calls “a summer of farce” in which their personal quest for ego gratification after being deprived of the attention they crave will overshadow discussion of the issues. No doubt we will have more fake tears from Spitzer as well as more tedious attempts from the former governor to portray himself as the solution to New York’s problems rather than the embodiment of the cancer eating away at our public life.

I don’t know whether the revulsion toward Spitzer on the part of so many liberal elites will be enough to offset his advantage in name recognition and money stemming from his family’s vast personal fortune. Perhaps, as the Times editorial seems to indicate, there is a growing recognition that the Bill Clinton paradigm of giving politicians a pass for misconduct undermines public ethics. All of us are flawed and Americans love the idea of second chances, but we also know that it isn’t too much to ask those entrusted with high public office to behave themselves or to ask them to stay out of the limelight when they cannot. But whether or not Spitzer or even Weiner can be stopped, it is a sign of health in our political culture that so many who might have once been counted on to give them a pass in the name of solidarity with liberal stalwarts are no longer willing to silently acquiesce to this sordid circus. 

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