There is a long tradition of academic dishonesty and misrepresentation in the Senate. Ted Kennedy had to leave Harvard after he was caught cheating on a Spanish exam. Then-Sen. Joe Biden got caught appropriating Neil Kinnock’s speech (and life) in the 1988 campaign. But Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.) is in a class by himself, the New York Times reports in an account of extensive plagiarism on his graduate paper: “The breadth of Mr. Walsh’s apparent plagiarism, however, is rivaled by few examples in recent political history. Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, was found last year to have presented the work of others as his own in a newspaper opinion article, a book and speeches. And Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. dropped his 1988 presidential bid when it was revealed that in campaign speeches he had used language similar to that of the British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock without attribution.” (I can’t help but note the irony that the paper that broke this story also continues to employ Maureen Dowd.) Walsh subsequently claimed that post-traumatic stress disorder was a factor, which strikes us an affront to veterans who suffer the genuine effects of PTSD.
The ill-advised appointee who was selected to replace Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) was probably going to lose his 2014 Senate bid before this incident. Now that’s virtually certain (might he withdraw?). The Walsh episode nevertheless is telling on a number of levels, whether or not he leaves the Senate.
First, it’s revealing about the decline in ethical standards that Biden was shoved out of the presidential run for a single stolen speech while Rand Paul sails along in the Senate largely unscathed (although these scandals that many politicians think are behind them have a way of resurfacing in a presidential race). When the public’s opinion of all politicians is so low, the scoundrels (e.g. Rep. Mark Sanford) don’t stick out so much. “They’re all low-life,” seems to be a common reaction. Defining deviance down is as much a part of political life as it is our social fabric. So these days, we’re at the point that it takes a whole bunch of plagiarism to make a stir.
Second, because one of the worst things one in public life one can be accused of is being “judgmental” — except about people who reject the liberal hymnal of beliefs — politicians tend not to even raise these issues against their opponents. The media, rather than Newt Gingrich’s opponent, raised his past infidelities. The media hounded former congressman Anthony Weiner when he ran for mayor, while his opponents tried to ignore him. This only serves to lower the standard for political behavior. (“Well if his opponent doesn’t care. . . .”) It’s considered rude to even mention your opponent’s bad behavior. To accuse someone of being ethically unfit is often worse than being accused — and groveling for public indulgence.
Third, tolerance is about the only behavioral standard to which politicians (and other public figures) are held to these days. Cheat on your spouse or in school, run into (legitimate) trouble with the Internal Revenue Service (as Rep. Charlie Rangel did), use illegal drugs (even frequently, as long as it’s in the past), lie (how quaint to consider this a disqualifier for office!) or hang out with unsavory pals, and your political career can survive. Just be remorseful or nonchalant (whatever works) and demand a second (or third, or fourth) chance. Voters will usually forgive you. Using a racial epithet or evidencing lack of sensitivity, however, may get you tossed from the political arena. (The latter might be justified in some instances, but is this the worst and only ethical slip that matters?)
Fourth, as politics becomes more and more arduous in a 24/7 news environment and with the constant need for fundraising, arguably we get more narcissistic and less accomplished figures going into public life. We’re hardly the first to recognize that the Senate isn’t what it used to be. The low opinion of politicians therefore becomes self-reinforcing. Pretty soon, there really are a lot of unsavory people in public life whose most notable characteristic is an insatiable ego. Celebrity replaces accomplishment or experience as the measuring stick for candidates.
Now voters have it in their power to restore some behavioral norms. They can forgive but not forget and reward malfeasance. They can choose to exercise some quality control. If they don’t, they get the government they deserve.