WHEN THE FIRST ACCOUNTS of the Korean influence-buying scandal surfaced four years ago, it looked as though they contained all the ingredients needed for a sure-fire, long-running media event: bribery, sex, exotic places and intrigue, and the spectacle of prominent people in uncomfortable positions. There was, it turned out, all this and less.
The numbers of congressmen involved proved to be few. The amounts of money spent on entertainment and bribes probably couldn't have financed the purchase of a single F-15 fighter. Many of the "lavish" parties hosted by Suzi Park Thomson -- widely and not entirely accurately described as a Korean Central Intelligence Agency operative -- turned out to have been modest events, at which people sat around on the floor eating raw fish. And as for exotic places. . . .
"George," said William Hundley, the lawyer, to fellow attorney George Koeizer shortly after Hundley's return from Seoul, "it's worse even than Newark."
All of which is not to say that there wasn't story there at the time, or a good book to be written about it today. It's just that stripped of its mystery and false aura of glamor, the scandal involved little more than the sort of day-in, day-out, garden variety corruption usually associated with municipal paving contracts.
The essence of the scandal is well-known: The Korean government, using both government officials and private businessmen such as Tongsun Park, set out to win friends in the Congress through the use of cash bribes, frequent entertainment and friendly women. The purpose was to help maintain support for military aid to Korea at a time when President Nixon was talking about withdrawing our troops.
Robert Boethcher, a former House committee staffer, and Gordon Freedman, now a reporter for The Atlanta Journal, manage to recount the tale in extensive detail, and this is both the chief strength and weakness of their book. No one has told the tale as completely as they have, putting it into its proper historical and political context. But the story simply itsn't compelling enough to sustain the weight of numerous, minutely detailed, examples of petting, corruption, vanity and greed.
A major problem, as far as reader interest is concerned, is that these are mostly crimes without passion, and that the characters for the most part are shallow, boorish and dull. There is betrayal without treachery, corruption without specific victims, and intrigue without danger or suspense. Tongsun Park, for all his self-promotion and hustling, is not as interesting as Sammy Glick.
There is also, in their recounting, a tendency by the authors sometimes to make more of all this than the evidence warrents, to portray as a menace things that were arguably more akin to a nuisance, and to overstate the threat to the Republic. The inability of the House Ethics Committee to investigate allegations of bribe-taking by congressmen, for example, is described as touching off a "crisis of confidence that resembled the effects of Nixon's 'Saturday Night Massacre' during Watergate" -- which is like saying that the fire in the Hay-Adams kitchen two years ago resembled the destruction of downtown Baltimore in 1904. They constantly use words like "nefarious."
They also have the maddening habit of stating as fact what someone was thinking at a given time -- which is something that they can't possibly know. And they seem to have missed one of the chief lessons of the whole scandal: that where influence peddlers are concerned, there often is a big gap between rhetoric and reality. Tongsun Park claimed to have much greater influence than he did over many more congressmen than he did, and seems to have told Korean officials that he passed around far more money than was the case. Yet on little more than his world, they state flatly that so-and-so received such-and-such, with no caveats, no qualifications, and no suggestion that maybe Tongsun wasn't always telling the truth.
That said, however, Gift of Deceit nonethless is a credible and valuable work, particularly when matched up against much of the coverage of "Koreagate," as William Safire dubbed it, by television and the press. Too often, it's now clear, the media hyped the story, inflated the figures and made things far deeper and darker than they proved to be. The Boettcher-Freedman version also is important because it manages to place the influence-buying campaign in the context of parallel efforts by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon -- a self proclaimed messiah, and sponsor of one of the most impressive fireworks displays ever seen in this capital -- to make Americans think more highly of the Korean government and to cement ties between the two countries.
Most Americans with a casual knowledge of Moon's organization probably dismiss it as one of the nuttier sects, and Boettcher and Freedman don't do anything to dispell this. He is how they deal with a central theme of Moon's theology:
"Moon is Perfect Adam, so he must be obeyed without question. Jesus, the most important Adam between the original one and Moon, attained spiritual perfection but was a flawed Messiah. His mission was foredoomed by John the Baptist, who spent his time baptizing people instead of becoming Jesus' obedient disciple for influencing the politics of the Herod regime. Making things worse, Jesus was a child of adultery, not immaculate conception, according to Moon. Mary was impregnated by Zachariah. Jesus had an unhappy home life because Joseph was jealous of Zacharish and resented Jesus. . . . Since Jesus was incapable of perfect love, owing to his unwholesome upbringing, he was also unable to marry as intended by God."
But they also argue with considerable passion that Moon is much more than just a harmless religious leader of questionable merit, complaining that he suckered in and manipulated thousands of young Americans, turning them into zombie-like creatures whose chief function is to raise money for his propaganda campaigns. Some of this is heavy-handed and probably subject to challenge, and they manage to side-step the possibility that many "moonies" more than likely would have drifted towards some sort of fringe religious group even if Moon and his church did not exist. s
They are effective in their assault on Moon, however, and he emerges from the book as a dangerous and hateful man, who preys on weaking and social misfits, using them for his own ends, while giving them little in return.
Moon is a principal villain, but major American institutions, including the Congress, the Justice Department, and, although the authors tiptoe rather lightly here, the press, are shown as having performed rather badly. About the only people who come out this looking good -- a handful of congressional staffers and bureaucrats aside -- are the defense lawyers such as Hundley, who represented Tongsun Park. They are not portrayed as heros by any means, but it's clear that they did their jobs well enough that people who probably deserved punishment got off the hook.
Gifts of Deceit is a story of people manipulating other people for their own ends, of people selling themselves cheap, and of people compromising themselves for minor favors. It is bottom, a depressing book. It is not a book to take to the beach.