Commentary Magazine

Scandal, by Suzanne Garment

Potomac Fever

Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics.
by Suzanne Garment.
Times Books/Random House. 352 pp. $23.00.

Suzanne Garment has written a racy and illuminating book which asks important questions. Is the element of corruption in American government growing? Or is it a media illusion produced by new prosecuting mechanisms? If the latter, is America in danger of denying itself the services of many public-spirited and decent men and women by creating a climate in which elected officials are systematically and unfairly harassed by lawyers and journalists seeking dirt at any cost?

As a historian, I never fail to be astonished by the relative incorruptibility of American public life. It is a theory of mine that no political system, however well-thought-out and invigilated, and however permeated by strong religious sanctions, can remain entirely honest if the sums of money at stake are large enough. (I suspect the same principle applies to female chastity.) America is by far the richest country in the world, and has been for over a century. Since the second half of the 18th century or even earlier, rich prizes have always been on offer, first through land speculation, then through industry and services.

It is remarkable that, during the 1780’s and 1790’s, the young American republic was exceptionally honest while the parent country, Britain, was still run by a system of government patronage. However, while the British began to eliminate corruption during the 1780’s—a process known as “economic reform,” which was virtually completed in the 1820’s—the new republic began to move in the opposite direction. Indeed, James Monroe’s second administration, once known as the Era of Good Feelings, might more properly be termed America’s first age of corruption.

Mrs. Garment, whose book contains a good deal of fascinating historical material, argues that the sums and numbers of people involved in 19th-century public scandals were small, at least compared with, say, the savings-and-loan affair of today, which may involve anything from $150 billion to $1 trillion. I am not so sure whether it is right to accept this theory of quantitative growth. When the Jackson administration took over in March 1829, to give one example, it was quickly discovered that $500,000—enough to buy 500 square miles of prime agricultural land—had been stolen from the U.S. Treasury, apart from larger thefts involving the army, navy, and Indian contracts. That was a substantial portion of the federal income. Scores of people were involved; 87 officials were discovered to have jail records.

Large-scale thieving from the public continued under Andrew Jackson. He appointed, as Collector of Customs at New York, a job which involved handling bigger quantities of cash than any other on earth (about $15 million a year), a suspect politician named Samuel Swartwout. Four years later Swartwout absconded to Europe with $1,222,705.09 (worth over $1 billion today), the largest single official theft in American history.

Yet, though large-scale corruption has usually been a feature of American politics, and has often involved many different people, it has always been seen as an aberration from the norm, has been universally reprobated, bitterly fought, and often mercilessly punished. For nearly two centuries, waves of corruption have been followed by waves of reform. In the second half of the 19th century, the “robber-baron” epoch of U.S. history was ended by successive and ultimately successful attempts at antitrust legislation, culminating in the great statutes passed under Woodrow Wilson.

Moreover, as Mrs. Garment points out, the sudden scale and speed of industrialization during this period were so enormous as to overwhelm both the administration and Congress: what was remarkable was not so much the wrongdoing as the rightdoing, the amount of progress achieved legitimately, transforming the lives of tens of millions of people. Mrs. Garment also, and justly, draws attention to the positive side of another phenomenon associated with corruption in American history: the city machines. Such institutions as Tammany Hall were the means whereby political power was peacefully transferred from the old ruling elites, like the Albany Regency, to new groups of mass immigrants.

Under the Constitution, the prime role in ensuring that the administration is efficient and honest rests with Congress, and no amount of special prosecutors or legislation specifically passed to remedy current abuses is likely to succeed if Congress is not doing its job, or doing it perversely. The separation-of-powers mechanism can fail in one of two ways. The two administrations of Ulysses S. Grant (1869-77) probably marked the nadir of standards in American government. They were also the culmination of a period when the Republicans not only controlled the administration but exercised overwhelming power in Congress. Under Grant, legislators were more eager to get a piece of the action, notably by reconstructing the South, than to supervise the federal government, and the inevitable followed.



In our own age, it has been the dominance of the Democrats in Congress which has allowed corruption to remain unpunished. Mrs. Garment draws attention to the way in which Lyndon B. Johnson got away with it. She could well have devoted considerably more space to this unsavory man, whose case is instructive. Almost from the outset of his career, Johnson was a favorite of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1941 he fought an unsuccessful campaign in the Democratic Senate primary in Texas, raising and spending $200,000 by blatant criminal tax frauds in violation of the Hatch Act. IRS inspectors got onto him and in due course accumulated overwhelming evidence which could have sent Johnson to jail. On January 13 and 17, 1944, Johnson and his lawyer-fixer Alvin Wirtz went to see Roosevelt in the White House. On the 14th, the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, Elmer Irey, was summoned to the White House, and by the evening of the 17th a new agent was assigned to the case with orders to drop any prosecution and negotiate fines. Treasury Secretary Morgenthau was in no doubt that presidential intervention saved Johnson from prison.

Johnson went on to be President, having survived not only this scandal but the Billy Sol Estes affair of 1962 and the even more dangerous Bobby Baker scandal of 1963. Just as a Democratic Congress, under Franklin D. Roosevelt, had failed to prevent him from using tax investigations for political purposes and many other abuses of power, so in the early 1960’s Democratic majorities protected Vice President Johnson. In the Bobby Baker case, which involved the integrity of the Senate, the Democratic majority deliberately slowed the hearings to enable Johnson to remain on the Democratic ticket, and by the time they started he was already President. The hearings were conducted on strictly party lines and when evidence which might have been fatal to Johnson threatened to appear, Everett Jordan, the Democrat from North Carolina who was chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, simply laid down: “We’re not investigating Senators.”

The same Democratic-controlled Congress which failed to uncover Johnson’s links with two major scandals was also remiss in its supervision of his predecessor, John F Kennedy. Year by year, we learn more of the irregularities and the abuses of power which occurred in the Kennedy White House. The recent testimony by Judith Exner about President Kennedy’s links with the Mafia is explicit and disturbing. Why was Congress so comatose at the time? Equally important, why were the media so inattentive or, to use a more accurate word, reticent? Many aspects of Kennedy’s behavior which were unworthy of a President, such as his womanizing, were well known to Washington editors and members of the press corps at the time. Why did Kennedy, like Johnson, get away with it? The historian is bound to conclude that both Presidents were protected persons, though Kennedy was protected mainly by the media, Johnson by Congress. But in each case the protecting agent was predominantly Democratic.



Under Richard Nixon the machinery went into reverse, and here we come to the second way in which the separation-of-powers mechanism can malfunction. When the White House and Congress are controlled by rival parties, as happens increasingly in America, the invigilating and redressing power of Congress can be exercised in a destructive manner. This occurred under Nixon. Nixon was tried by the media, and Kennedy and Johnson by nobody, and it is a matter of historical judgment which of the three offended more against constitutional order. In my opinion, Nixon was the least guilty of the three. There can be little doubt that, if the Republicans had controlled Congress, Nixon would have completed his term with little difficulty and the notion of an impeachment would not even have been canvassed. (It is worth noting that the only other presidential impeachment, of Andrew Johnson in 1869, was a strictly partisan affair launched for political reasons.) As it was, the success of the media-Democratic vendetta against Nixon, and its tragic aftermath, led to a vacuum of power in Washington and a hiatus in the exercise of American authority in the world, with disastrous consequences both for the U.S. and its allies; not until the Reagan presidency was it possible to begin the restoration of America’s self-confidence and global prestige. In my view, without the absurdities of Watergate, the collapse of Soviet Communism would have begun to occur in the late 1970’s rather than the 1980’s.

That, of course, is speculation. What is not speculation is the contention in Mrs. Garment’s book that Democratic Congresses, by devising special acts and procedures for the prosecution of public officials, in conjunction with “investigative journalists” of the media, overwhelmingly Democratic or even radical, have between them developed a culture of mistrust toward those in power which has made good government—that is to say, courageous government, willing to take calculated risks and make unpopular decisions—far more difficult. Mrs. Garment gives many instances of the way in which the new legal-enforcement agents have become part of what she terms “a self-reinforcing scandal machine.”

“Scandal politics” are, perhaps inevitably, an important part of what I term Media Democracy, the system of government under which, increasingly, all advanced Western peoples live. But in America scandal politics have been institutionalized. Mrs. Garment writes that, in the pursuit of political victims, “Prosecutors use journalists to publicize criminal cases while journalists, through their news stories, put pressure on prosecutors for still more action.” Scandal politics certainly deter the honest from seeking office. What is not clear is whether the new climate of mistrust is making public life cleaner. As Mrs. Garment points out, more and more cases of misconduct appear to be occurring, or at least coming to light. Obviously, if honest men and women will not run for office, their places will be taken by the less scrupulous. And fear of exposure has never deterred real adventurers.



Mrs. Garment’s book clearly makes the case for a fresh look at the way the United States upholds standards of conduct in the federal government. To a British observer, certain defects in the U.S. system are obvious. The law of libel gives those who hold or seek office far too little protection. They are obliged to prove not only that their accusers knew that the defamatory information they published was false but that they were motivated by express malice. Moreover, accused public officials are often tried and convicted by the media, themselves reporting deliberate leaks provided by congressional committees or investigating agencies, long before the accused can get access to any kind of legal process. Here, the ancient notion of contempt of court, which goes back to the 12th century, is in unresolved conflict with the First Amendment.

But these are comparatively minor points. The truth, I suspect, is that the American system will not strike the proper balance in the pursuit of corruption in office until it tackles the larger and more serious problem of congressional tenure. The Democratic imbalance in Congress, especially in the House of Representatives, cumulatively created by the difficulty in ousting long-tenured Democrats, makes the legislature lax in monitoring government during the rare Democratic administrations, and overzealous, indeed vindictive, in investigating the far more frequent Republican ones.

But that is only one of the evils produced by long tenure. Recent legislation makes it increasingly hard for Congressmen to add to their salaries by activities outside politics, especially by the traditional practice of law. The ban is well-intentioned, but it tends to create a class of professional politicians who go into politics for life and who know no other kind of occupation. Such a class is inimical to the spirit of the Constitution. It creates a cast of mind remote from the real life of the country, and the isolation is increased by living in an artificial federal capital whose only activities are politics and government.

That is one reason why the United States has such a huge budget deficit, its rulers spending vast sums they do not dare to collect from the taxpayers, so mortgaging the future. In such an unreal atmosphere of profligacy, the ordinary rules of personal morality appear to be in suspense, and it is not surprising that men and women elected or appointed to the system, who in any other circumstances would be scrupulous, are tempted and succumb. Special prosecutors will not cure this malady. They will merely keep out the truly incorruptible.

America is still at heart a high-principled, idealistic nation, with an intense yearning for its affairs to be conducted with total probity. That is why it has supported enforcement procedures which do more harm than good and of which Mrs. Garment rightly and impressively complains. But in the end, the only way to reduce corruption in government is to reduce the size of government.



Paul Johnson, whose books include Modern Times and, most recently, The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 (HarperCollins), writes a weekly column for the London Spectator.



About the Author

Paul Johnson is the author of Modern Times, A History of Christianity, and A History of the Jews, among many other books.

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