You can learn about how the federal government works from Washington Post obituaries. Many people who have had careers in Washington seem to have focused on lining their pockets rather than serving the public interest. Everyone wants to succeed, of course, but for most Americans that means private-sector jobs that add value to society. Washington, by contrast, provides unique opportunities to make money by harming society and betraying the public trust.
Sunday’s Post had a detailed obit for Bobby Baker, who was a close friend and “protégé” of Lyndon Johnson in the Senate, but who ended up in prison for tax evasion, theft, and fraud.
Here are some excerpts:
Mr. Baker was just 20 at the time and a staffer for the Senate leadership, keeping track of legislation and when it would be coming up for a vote. His vast knowledge of the operations of the Senate and his facility in the art of accommodation—moving pet legislative projects ahead for some senators or helping fulfill the proclivities of others for drink, sex or cash—would make him an invaluable asset to [Lyndon] Johnson.
Using his guile, political skill and finesse in the art of the deal, Mr. Baker amassed a fortune of more than $2 million in his moonlighting activities with holdings in cattle, insurance, vending machines, real estate and gambling operations in the Caribbean. He lived in the Spring Valley section of Washington, close to the far wealthier Johnson. He achieved all of this on an official salary of $19,600 a year.
Years later, he justified his highflying ways in his memoir, which was aptly titled: “Wheeling and Dealing: Confessions of a Capitol Hill Operator.”
“Like my bosses and sponsors in the Senate, I was ambitious and eager to feather my personal nest,” Mr. Baker wrote in the book, a collaboration with author Larry L. King.
“As they presumed their high stations to entitle them to accept gratuities or hospitalities from patrons who had special axes to grind, so did I,” Mr. Baker added. “As they took advantage of privileged information to get in on the ground floor of attractive investments, so did I. As they used their powerful positions to gain loans or credit that otherwise might not have been granted, so did I.”
Mr. Baker’s world of privilege and political connections came crashing down in the fall of 1963….It was discovered that Mr. Baker owned a condominium where high-profile Washington figures were entertained by women who were not their wives.
It was also disclosed that Mr. Baker was the co-founder of the Quorum Club, located in the Carroll Arms, a small hotel on Capitol Hill. It was a place where lawmakers, lobbyists and other interested parties would drink, play cards and dally with young women.
His legal downfall came in 1967, when he was indicted on charges of tax evasion, theft and fraud. Mr. Baker had allegedly been asked by savings and loan industry officials in California to deliver a six-figure sum to Sen. Robert Kerr (D-Okla.), who died in 1963. According to Mr. Baker’s memoir, that money was to have been an inducement to derail a bill that would have been costly to the savings and loan industry. Mr. Baker’s transgression, according to the grand jury, was that he kept nearly $50,000 for himself.
Is Washington more or less corrupt than during the Bobby Baker era? On the one hand, the government is much larger today than during the 1960s, handing out more subsidies to more people and groups. On the other hand, there is more transparency today due to the rise of the Internet and the broadening of media competition. So there are more opportunities for corruption today, but it might be more likely that the worst abusers get caught.
Corruption is one reason why most federal programs do not, on net, serve the public interest, and why we would be better off without them. For the many other reasons, see DownsizingGovernment.org.
By the way, Wiki has a useful list of historical political scandals—everything from the Whiskey Ring and Teapot Dome to Dennis Hastert and Chaka Fattah.