You get a feeling that any day now the lines on the chart are going to cross, that there will be more public officials in this country who have been indicted than who have not been. A baby is born in the U.S.A. every 10 seconds, a congressman goes on trial every 15. Or, at least, so it seems. My question is this: Why - especially given our aggrieved antipolitical national mood called to account so profoundly and stupefyingly uninteresting? Why does it fail to gratify even one's baser, more vindictive instincts? Like you, I suspect, I weary quickly of counting the catch each night on the 6 o'clock news. "Come on," I hear myself muttering, "Let's get on with it . . . what really happened today?"
No doubt the stupefaction has something to do with sheer numbers. The kickback revelation and the payoff charge have long since lost their power to entertain, let alone to shock or even startle. We are coming, alas, to view them (however unfairly) not as the exception, but as the rule. Another reason for the lack of public outcry and agitation may be the strangely even-handed distribution of all these charges. It's rather as if divine justice - notoriously quirky, cranky, irrational and on the surface of things, unfair - had been replaced by one of those bipartism, toothless citizens' commissions. A Northern black Republican senator in distress (Edward Brooke) will be matched by a Southern white Democratic senator (Herman Talmadgel, and so on. Except for a women - our time will come - the apportionment among parties, regions and races has been almost perfect, with the result that no faction or group can safely rise up in outraged innocence against another.
Still, I think there is something more subtle and elusive behind the widespread detachment with which all this meeting out of punishment is being greeted. It is a sense that the forces of law and order, retribution and justice are, once again, slightly missing the mark, that this cash-and-carry kind of misbehavior is, in its way, marginal and even antiquated, a relatively modest aspect of a more insidious and pervasive kind of political corruption. Let me quickly add that I am not headed for the intellectually fraudulent we-are-all-guilty terrain; the people at GSA did what they did - not "someone" or "everyone" else. My observation is merely that in these proliferating conspiracy-and-bribery scandals we tend to be netting either little fish or big fish doing little thing, and we know it.
Somehow neither our institutions nor our legal and political processes nor our mind-set and metabolism will allow us to deal with what is bothering us in a timely, on-target fashion. Maybe from a due-process, civil-libertarian, go-slow point of view this is a good restraining thing. But it remains the slightly askew American way of rendering judgement once the society has decided there is some sort of villainy in its midst.
We got Al Capone on income taxes. Sen. Joseph McCarthy was ultimately punished (and ruined) by the political establishment for incautiously attacking politically popular and sturdy individuals and institutions - not for victimizing those who were at a disadvantage in striking back. The same peculiar dynamic was even at work in te vaguely preposterous television-quiz-show scandals of the late '50s. A shocked nation rose up as one and excoriated the throughly compromised young professor, Charles Van Doren, for having "cheated" in getting the quiz-show answers in advance. But surely, like Capone's taxes and McCarthy's kamikaze attack on the U.S. Army, that was the least of it. Of course Van Doren had the answers. Why would anyone care? With or without answers, his corruption from the beginning lay in his willingness to participate in the degradation of the meaning and value of learning and of his own profession. That Van Doren was to justify this performance by insisting that he had actually been seeking to promote the image of scholarship, only revealed that the squalor had a second story to it.
In the current context I give you, as an example of how a bribery charge can miss the mark, the case of the District of Columbia political bigwig and former Human Resources Department director, Joseph Yeldell.He has just been convicted of conspiracy and bribery in the matter of a $33,000 personal loan from a fellow (also convicted) who got a very profitable government lease from Yeldell - as the jury decided - in return.
Sordid, greedy: I agree. But until he was nabbed for this particular variety of wrongdoing. Yeldell in his official capacity was systematically acquiescing in the maltreatment of countless of the city's poor and helpless people who depended on his rankly cycnical and indifferent department for lifeline assistance. And for me, whatever sleazy or acquisitive impulse lay behind the evident trade-off of money for a lease, it was almost innocent by comparison with impulses that could have permitted the man to puff up his vanity and indulge his taste for importance at the expense of impoverished old people and homeless kids.
Money is not the root of all evil. I suppose we have always known that. What seems to me more distinctive about the present wave of allegations, reprimands, indictments and convictions is that we are increasingly and uncomfortably aware that the money transaction has its nonmonetary analogies and counterparts in a whole realm of political transactions that we can't quite get at. The money thing is old hat (you'll never read a more fascinating confessional account of taking kickbacks than Pepys renders in his diary). It is also, like the poor, always with us, indestructible; I note that Billie Sol Estes, in and out of prison, is not coming around for the second time on a new wave of the same kind of old charges. These transactions, in other words, are conventional, familiar, even in some ways, quaint - you take the money, you take the risk . . . it's as simple and eternal as that.
But the corruption of political processes for other kinds of reward is something else. How shall we deal with the truly ugly and harmful trade-offs of power for power, the corruption that swells the airwaves with "sincere" professions of outright lies - that we know are lies as well as their politician-purveyors do, and which we yet are not quite able to disentangle and describe for what they are? How do we get at the cynical, manipulative influence of some of the worst lobbies and special pleaders who don't just buy a piece of a public official or steal a few thousands dollars in pay for no work, but who make off with whole legislatures and deceive whole segments of the society? I'm not saying that the demonstrable quid pro quo kind of corruption is harmless - only that it keeps nagging at us and reminding us of those more insidious and destructive transactions that are more dangerous precisely because they can't be boiled to a plain old classic case of money for favors.