One week, three styles of corruption. First, at the low end of the scale, the small-timer. A deputy mayor of Washington resigned after admitting he had received a $3,000 payment from a firm contracting with the city government. This kind of conduct -- which at the very least created an appearance of impropriety -- elicits puzzlement mixed with contempt. How could anyone jeopardize a career for so little?
Then, in the middle of the scale, a more familiar story of political corruption, the ever growing New York City scandal. This story -- old-fashioned extortion, bribery and kickbacks -- elicits a knowing nod. We've seen it a dozen times in the movies, with Pat O'Brien playing prison confessor. In Hollywood, under the old code, the guilty were required to pay in the last reel. Here, too, the end is tragedy. The chief suspect, Donald Manes, "the King of Queens," committed suicide after one of his cronies plea-bargained and agreed to talk.
This is corruption on a human scale. It elicits anger, but also sympathy, because we have the feeling that any of us, in such a position, might have succumbed to the same temptation. (Anyone, that is, except New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin, who traces the origins of the scandal to the legitimization of greed in Ronald Reagan's Washington. Tammany Hall, it seems, is a supply-side invention.)
And now from Manila, the corruption story that is off the scale: the unimaginable rapacity of Ferdinand Marcos, the only person who could make Baby Doc Duvalier look like a man of moderation. Madame Baby Doc spent nearly $2 million on her last Paris shopping spree. By a low estimate, Marcos stole that much every week -- week in, week out -- for 20 years.
In a just world there would be a $100 million rule: every despot who agrees to board a U.S. evacuation plane without a fight gets to keep his first $100 million and has to give the rest back. Duvalier appears to have kept within this rough limit, owing, admittedly, to a lack of opportunity (there is just so much one can squeeze out of Haiti) rather than an excess of scruples.
The Marcoses' corruption knew no limit. And yet, in the end, what is most dismaying is not its scale, but its pettiness. This is corruption without a hint of grandeur. What, after all, does one do with 500 black brassieres and 3,000 pairs of shoes?
The greed has an inward, pathological quality that makes you wonder if the Freudians aren't right that such hoarding is the twisted expression of a darker instinct, suppressed and displaced. Which, in turn, explains the obsessive, prurient interest such pathological acquisitiveness arouses in us. The media, and not a few congressmen, cannot have enough of the bursting closets, the gilded baths, the oversized beds.
Smallness of spirit, in a tyrant, does have one redeeming feature, however. If your ambition is, like Mao's, to reshape man, you will need to kill the several million people who inevitably will resist. If your ambition is to reshape your boudoir, you need only steal. Crimes against property always weigh less heavily than crimes against the soul. And a man who makes Gatsby look shirtless can have little interest in souls.
Marcos' smallness kept him from being a moral monster, but not a psychological one. His demeaning, demented corruption deserves contempt not for its scope, but for its lack of it. At least the shah aspired to be Ozymandias. Marcos aspired to be J. C. Penney. Marcos is not the first crowned thief to amass a fortune amid starvation and poverty. But at least the other thieves left behind, amid the suffering, a Hermitage or a Versailles. The Bourbons bequeathed to their wretched subjects a Hall of Mirrors. The Marcoses left a forest of dresses.
To tastes utterly pedestrian and pathetically imitative of Yankee fashion, the Marcoses could add only a genius for excess. Other great monuments to megalomanic greed have been turned into museums of art. Malacanang Palace can serve only as a psychiatric exhibit.
Only the scale is grand. Take that away and you are left with a deputy mayor pocketing $3,000 he cannot resist -- albeit, taking it every 20 minutes for 20 years. Ferdinand Marcos is, finally, a petty thief, blessed only with opportunity and lots of time.
Given three brands of corruption, I choose Manes'. My sympathy lies with him not just because he has overpaid his sins, but because the scale of his corruption is comprehensible. That of the small timers -- in for $3,000, in for $3 billion -- is not.
Which is why, I suspect, we derive a certain satisfaction when, as part of their sentence, ridicule is added to disgrace or exile. Marcos wants Mexico or Panama to grant him asylum from Hawaii. He is fleeing harassment by the law and mockery by the press. Exiled again, this time by Johnny Carson: "Good news for Mrs. Aquino. She has just been informed that her shoe size is the same as Imelda's." The punishment begins to fit the smallness of the crime.