Colbert I. King
Colbert I. King
Opinion Writer

A different kind of black-and-white issue

This week I received an e-mail with the subject line: “Please Colbert, write about Jesse Jackson Jr and father.”

The message from Dennis Flynn was brief: “Please write about the part genetics play in the problems in the Jackson family lineage. Out of marriage children by a Minister. Fraud and stealing by a congressman. What an example for young African Americans.”

Colbert I. King

King writes a column -- sometimes about D.C., sometimes about politics -- that runs on Saturdays.

Archive

It was a racial taunt, perhaps best ignored.

But the attempt to twist the knife also displayed ignorance.

The writer chose to view the fall of Jesse Jackson Jr. through the lens of race, ignoring how widespread the conduct he deplored has become.

Public figures fathering a child out of marriage? The e-mailer failed to mention former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R); former senator and Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards; Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.); former New York representative Vito Fossella (R); the late Republican senator Strom Thurmond, a former presidential candidate; or former New Mexico senator Pete Domenici (R) — all of whom did what Jesse Jackson Sr. had done.

Misconduct while in public office? The list of violators is endless and spans the racial and religious spectra. But surely this e-mailer knows that.

Less speculative and more serious, however, is the writer’s suggestion that the two Jacksons are poor examples for “young African Americans.”

People who think this should take off their racial blinders. They have obscured perception of a chronic plague in public life: the temptation to misuse and abuse power.

Misconduct is found at all levels of government, and in both parties.

Look no further than nearby Anne Arundel County, where County Executive John Leopold (R) resigned this month after being found guilty of misconduct. Here in the District, two official investigations found that D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) had violated the code of conduct of the Metro board, on which he served at the time, and code of conduct of the city.

And don’t forget former council chairman Kwame Brown (D), now a convicted felon under house arrest, or former council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), who is serving time in a federal penitentiary.

There’s not nearly enough space to catalogue the misdeeds of state government officials. South Carolina alone would fill this column.

I could spend the rest of the year writing about those on Capitol Hill, from both parties, who at some point disgraced their offices and themselves. In all cases, the individual crossing the line occupied a position in which he or she had been held to a higher standard. They all fell short.

The standard itself is straightforward and applies to every level of government, whether city or county council, Congress or the White House: Serve with honor and act only in the public interest. No more, no less.

But up pops the devil — that nasty old thing called power.

Why the ethical shortfalls among the powerful? Was Lord Acton correct in observing, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely”? Or does power provide an opportunity for those predisposed to behave badly?

The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, named after the British historian, published an article by Ben Moreell that expands on this question.

Moreell suggests that when an individual gains power over others — to the extent that they will do the person’s bidding whether or not they agree — “a moral weakness develops in the person who exercises that power.”

It may take a while for the weakness to develop, Moreell wrote, because the person may not be innately bad. But the moral weakness will eventually show itself.

Moreell ends his essay with this stinger: “If the benevolent ruler stays in power long enough, he eventually concludes that power and wisdom are the same thing. And as he possesses power, he must also possess wisdom. He becomes converted to the seductive thesis that election to public office endows the official with both power and wisdom. At this point, he begins to lose his ability to distinguish between what is morally right and what is politically expedient.”

So back to where we began. This isn’t about race or genetics or setting examples for young African Americans. Neither is this issue about the corruptibility of power. As author Harry Shearer asked: “If absolute power corrupts absolutely, does absolute powerlessness make you pure?”

The challenge rests with us. What do we demand — not seek, but demand — from our leaders? Do we push back when asked to go along?

If not high ethical standards, then why bother?

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.

 
Read what others are saying

    The zealots win again