Commentary

Politics and Corruption, Together Again

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is the new poster boy for political corruption, but he is really just the most recent reminder of the fundamentally grubby and corrupt nature of politics. In Illinois alone, three recent governors — liberal “reformers” Otto Kerner and Dan Walker and career politician George Ryan — have preceded Blagojevich in making the journey from the statehouse to the big house.

Cases like these remind us of the fundamental nature of politics. Blagojevich showed less intelligence and more vulgarity than most politicians, but trading taxpayer money for personal or political gain is the common coin of politicians. In his first post-indictment news conference, Blagojevich himself strongly hinted that he will defend himself with the notion that swapping appointments and favors is merely stock in trade for politicians of the upper echelon.

That leads to a virtually inescapable conclusion: The best way to limit such tawdry quid pro quo is to limit the power of politicians and of government.

Stories of ambitious men being corrupted by the political game have been plentiful since my youth. It amazes me, here amid many calls for the government to take an ever more active role in our country’s doings, that so many of these cautionary tales seem to be forgotten.

Spiro T. Agnew got his start on the Baltimore County zoning board, which is probably evidence enough that he was a crook from the start. He went on to serve as Baltimore County executive, governor of Maryland and vice president under President Richard M. Nixon, taking bribes in return for government contracts the whole way through.

Agnew pleaded no contest to one count of tax evasion and resigned the vice presidency. But one of the federal attorneys on the case said: “I’ve never seen a stronger extortion case. The man is a crook.”

FBI investigations and anti-bribery laws will never take the corruption out of politics.”

When I was a college student in Nashville, Rep. Ray Blanton was elected governor of Tennessee. Four years later, he lost his bid for re-election to Lamar Alexander, who now serves in the U.S. Senate. On Jan. 16, 1979, Alexander was suddenly sworn in as governor, three days before his scheduled inauguration, to prevent Blanton from commuting the sentences of any more prisoners.

Blanton accelerated his sales of pardons after he was defeated for re-election and realized his time to profit was drawing short. Blagojevich is accused of speeding up his efforts to trade favors for campaign funds before a Dec. 31 change in the campaign finance laws.

Blanton had ordered commutations or pardons for 24 convicted murderers and 28 other prisoners before his signing frenzy ended with Alexander’s surprise swearing-in. Those 52 last-minute pardons came a month after three state employees, including two members of his office legal staff, were arrested by the FBI and charged with extortion and conspiracy to sell pardons, paroles and commutations. As with Blagojevich, the knowledge that an FBI investigation was under way just made Blanton double down.

The Blanton pardons were recalled to public memory when another Southern politician created a pardon scandal as he left office in 2001. President Bill Clinton’s pardons differed from Blanton’s in many ways. Blanton’s aides apparently sold pardons and commutations for straight cash on the barrelhead, though the governor himself did not pocket any of the loot. Blanton commuted the sentences of convicted murderers, some of whom had served only a few years.

Clinton’s last-minute pardons involved a broader range of offenses against decency and good sense. His notorious pardons for Marc Rich and Pincus Green, who had fled the country and never faced trial, overshadowed many of the other outrages on the morning of Jan. 20.

In his rush to the door, Clinton pardoned his brother; people associated with Whitewater and related Clinton scandals; his former Cabinet secretary Henry Cisneros and Cisneros’ former mistress; several people convicted of bribery involving another Clinton Cabinet member; former Rep. Mel Reynolds, convicted of wire fraud, bank fraud and sex with an underage girl; a Clinton fundraiser who had embezzled clients’ money; supporters of Hillary Clinton’s Senate bid; a Democratic party activist who had embezzled money intended for the homeless; several people smart enough to hire former Clinton staffers as their lawyers; a group of female leftist bombers, one of whom told the media that she was excited about resuming her activism; and a convicted defrauder then under investigation in yet another money-laundering scheme.

FBI investigations and anti-bribery laws will never take the corruption out of politics. The best way to limit it is to keep government small, with few jobs to fill and limited money to spend.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of The Politics of Freedom: Taking on the Left, the Right, and Threats to Our Liberties.