Reflections on Political Scandal

The complete history of these proceedings cannot be written, for the end is not yet; indeed, such a history probably never will be written…. It was something new to see a knot of adventurers, men of broken fortune, without character and without credit, possess themselves of an artery of commerce … and make levies upon it, not only for their own emolument, but, through it, upon the whole business of a nation.

…No people can afford to glance at these things in the columns of the daily press, and then dismiss them from memory. For Americans they involve many questions;—they touch very nearly the foundations of common truth and honesty without which that healthy public opinion cannot exist which is the life’s breath of our whole political system.

—Charles Francis Adams, Jr., “A Chapter of Erie” (1871)

When too many scandals have gone on for too long, uninterrupted and inadequately investigated, they tend to merge. What began as isolated instances of corruption grow toward each other and finally interlock. The nursing home operators, and private garbage collectors, and parking lot owners, and film industry executives, and cable television interests, and vending machine distributors, and recording companies, and casino operators, the teamsters, the Mafia, and defense contractors, and finally the investigative agencies of government and elected officials up to the highest level begin to have in common not just a general corruption but joint ventures and even personnel.

That is an extremely dangerous moment in public life. It is almost impossible to understand. People with an abstract turn of mind adopt conspiracy theories—when the problem is not a conspiracy but some other link. Investigative reporters, meanwhile, find sources, gather facts. There is a lot of news. But the meaning, the most obvious inferences, in a time of high scandal, are lost in a deluge of trivially depressing information.

The “artery of commerce” to which Charles Francis Adams referred was, of course, the Erie Railway. The reason he and his brother Henry could set forth so convincingly, in Chapters of Erie, the threat which the railroad and gold scandals of the 1860s posed to “our whole political system” was that they understood, perhaps more clearly than any other muckrakers in our history, what the particular high scandal of their time meant. It was not a matter of daily facts and revelations, the sums of money, the ranks of the corrupted; or even of dimension, the size of illegal transactions, the buying of judges to declare them legal and then of legislators to procure the law itself.

What the Adams brothers had, at the end of their investigation, was both a scoop (or, rather, a grand accumulation of scoops) and an intellectual perception of its meaning: the system was threatened by that new entity, the corporation—not just trivially, in that officials could be bought, but fundamentally, in that the general public, “the delight and prey of Wall Street,” was tempted by and even implicated in the new corruption. The ordinary …

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Letters

The Payoff February 23, 1978

The Payoff February 23, 1978