We got a lot of laughs when we talked to some of our friends about tonight’s topic. Some of our favorite answers were “Since the dawn of time,” “Since they came out of the womb,” and “Since when have they ever not been corrupt?” And yet, many people think of the good old days of politics. Some go back to our founding fathers as the political ideal. Others will cite Abraham Lincoln as the perfect image of a politician. Many will argue that popular presidents like JFK or Reagan were perfect role models for other politicians.
And it does seem that political figureheads have lost their way in recent years. There’s no denying that now more than ever we’re hearing stories about corruption and ethical misconduct on capital hill. It seems there’s not a politician out there who’s above the muck of moral lapses and fraud. But is the problem one that is new to politics, or do we just hear about it more? We’ll answer this question by looking at recent political figureheads who have stood on the wrong side of the law/morals, focus on our previous political heroes, and round up the discussion answering the questing and showing you why we feel the way we do.
First, let’s take a look at some politicians who have been struck by corruption and moral failures in recent years. The most obvious stop is our good friend just south of the (Wisconsin) border, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. “Blago” failed to enact any sort of legislation or budgets, and was generally considered to be the least-liked governor in office – and that was all before he was arrested on federal corruption charges for literally selling Barack Obama’s vacant senate seat. The Illinois State Senate soon removed Blago from power with a unanimous vote, and he was found guilty for lying to investigators soon after. (The other 23 charges filed against him are up for trial this summer.)
Next is former New York Governor Elliott Spitzer. Spitzer was a former Attorney General, who rose to political stardom by busting prostitution rings as NY’s AG. He ran his campaign on a platform promising “ethics and integrity to be the hallmarks of my administration.” Spitzer was subsequently busted in a prostitution ring, in which he was the infamous “Client 9”. Spitzer paid for sex from multiple callgirls from the Emperor’s Club Escort Service as the AG and the Governor, totaling over $80,000. Don’t feel too bad for him though – he’s still happily married and co-hosts a show on CNN.
Finally, it’s not a discussion about corruption without discussing everyone’s favorite political crook – Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon. Before Clinton adopted the moniker for a different reason, Tricky Dick became the only President to ever resign from office (because he was assuredly going to be impeached and found guilty if he didn’t). Nixon sent men to break into the Democratic National Convention Headquarters in ’72, presumably to gather information about an election he would later win in a landslide. Not only did Nixon pay the men to do it, he abused his power as president in an attempt to cover the situation up before the press or anyone else could catch wind of it. But investigative reporting prevailed and Nixon stepped down from the highest political office in the US rather than be humiliated and embarrassed even more than he already had been.
But corruption in government is nothing new. In fact, you don’t have to look beyond the founding fathers to find the nation’s first major sex scandal. Thomas Jefferson slept essentially kept one of his slaves as a concubine and fathered six children with her. Ironically, this was brought to light in the early 1800’s, but then dismissed as rumor until late in the 20th century when DNA analysis all but proved it to be true. Other evidence exists that the children of the slave/concubine were Jefferson’s.
But surely a renowned American hero like “Honest” Abe Lincoln were above political scandal, right? Not so much. It might be a slight stretch to call it a scandal, but Lincoln’s decision to suspend Habeas Corpus during the Civil War ruffled a lot of feathers – and rightly so. Habeas Corpus is the right for citizens to seek relief from unlawful imprisonment. Lincoln said he needed the power to prevent riots and uprisings, but to us it still looks like a pure power grab. Also, one of the first things Lincoln did was to imprison the Mayor of Baltimore and other Maryland politicians suspected (but not charged of) harassing Union troops. The Chief Justice of the United States of America at the time issued the writ of Habeas Corpus for the release of those men, but Lincoln simply ignored the writ and kept them locked up anyway.
And it’d be a shame to pretend that Blago was the first corrupt leader in Illinois. Sadly, he might not even crack the top five. Especially looking at Chicago’s illustrious history of
dealing with embracing fraud, he’s got a long ways to go. Remember a guy by the name of Al Capone? Capone stayed in power because he was able to pay off politicians left and right, most notably Chicago Mayor William Hale Thompson. “Big Bill” ran for office on a campaign to clean up government and rid Chicago of corruption. What people didn’t know was Thompson’s campaign was funded by Capone, and once he was elected, he instead sought out to destroy the reformers who were actually trying to do good. Thompson was essentially Capone’s stooge, and is widely regarder as one of the most corrupt mayors in American History.
So we can clearly see that corruption is nothing new in America – it’s always been here and it always will be here. So if the problem isn’t new, then why does it seem like it’s much more widespread and prevalent than it used to be? The answer is simple – technology (for two reasons).
First, it’s way easier to catch politicians committing crimes than ever before. Every politician is under the media’s microscope (although to varying degrees), and unlike in the past, it’s impossible for them to hide from public view. Between the internet, cameras, video recorders and thousands of reporters documenting their every move, politicians can’t get away with anything and not expect someone to pick up on it. One of the reasons Spitzer got busted was because the government was worried that the cash withdrawals he was making could have been because he was being extorted – but it turned out he was screwing with cash, not being screwed for it. Too many people ask too many questions for politicians to even think about being corrupt without a CNN investigative team showing up on the spot. And while cyber criminals and computer masterminds can use the internet and modern technology to escape and hide, politicians aren’t that tech smart (or smart in general, really).
Second, technology allows everyone to find out about wrongdoing in the government instantaneously. Chances are if you’ve taken the time to read this blog, you’ve got some sort of news application on a laptop, phone or some sort of mobile device. And even if that’s not true, we guarantee you pay attention to the news at least somewhat. TV news wasn’t available 75 years ago, and even then newspapers were generally reserved for the upper class who actually needed to stay current in government and politics. That doesn’t even cover the internet; the single greatest spreader of information since Paul Revere. Instead of waiting months, weeks or days to get a story, you’ve got breaking news delivered directly to you minutes after it happens with modern technology, so it seems like there’s more corruption then there used to be.
The reality is simple, however. There’s just as much corruption as there always was – it’s just way easier for politicians to get caught, and it’s way easier for you, the common citizen, to find out about it. For better or for worse, modern technology has forever changed our political landscape in uncountable ways, and this is just one of them.
So the next time someone tells you about the good old days of American politics when the politicians were honest and scrupulous, you can take pride in the fact that American politicians have always been somewhat corrupt, and those good old days weren’t really as good as everyone thinks they were.