I don’t think I remember a time when politicians had a good reputation. My earliest recollection of corrupt politicians immune to voter backlash was the handsome and sticky-fingered Rev. Adam Clayton Powell of New York, a place where no amount of ethical or moral flaws can keep a scoundrel out of office. Opinion polls inevitably show that people esteem politicians as much as they do lawyers, and little wonder. According to WikiAnswers, lawyers make up sixty percent of the U.S. Senate and 37 percent of the House. I bet if none of them were lawyers our legislation would be far easier to read and comprehend. Even accepting that politicians have always been prone to corruption, lack of principle, cowardice and venality, I think something has changed over the past several decades that makes it harder than ever to find an honest and respectable politician. I think one reason is the 24-hour media; another is the erosion of America’s moral underpinnings.
All those 24/7 news channels have a tough row to hoe. They have to dream up something to put on the screen to supplement the one or two hours of real news that they have. I’ve frequently wanted to put my fingers in my ears and shout “Shut up!” at the inanity coming from Fox News. Instead I turn off the television altogether for the blessed silence that follows. I’ve heard about kittens up trees thousands of miles away from me, about an alligator that got swallowed by a snake, about a minor tremor in California, about crack-heads who murder babies, or a car chase in Palooka, USA inspired by other car chases covered breathlessly by tv news. Then there are the endless and excruciatingly boring trials of murderers examined obsessively by hordes of analysts, lawyers, victims, neighbors and childhood friends and watched avidly by millions of people who have nothing better to do with their limited time on earth than to wonder if some baboon is going to get off or get life.
In this same filling-up-time manner, the 24-hour news gives us every detail, no matter how minor, about a political aspirant. Not only his Party identification and his life outline, but what he eats, how much he eats, whom he eats with, what he watches or reads while he eats, and where he eats. Unless your medical history shows drug use (Clinton and Obama) health records are grist for media gossip-mongering, like John McCain’s cancer, Betty Ford’s addictions or Barbara Bush’s medication problems (but not so much Hillary Clinton’s stroke). They go into details about every word a candidate ever spoke that might be embarrassing that was overheard at any distance, recalled as hearsay, or recorded. If you think you might want to run for president one day, my child, I would advise not saying a thing until your first run for office. This strategy was already successfully used by Barack Hussein Obama in both 2008 and 2012, a miracle of sorts that could put him in line for a papacy.
If you are a decent man or woman today the very thought of running for any office is simply beyond contemplation. The ravenous media will scour every corner of your existence to find something not-quite kosher or, if they’re lucky, very bad. Even what by today’s standards are minor indiscretions are wound up by the media into major transgressions, destroying families, reputations, and careers. Unfortunately even the Republican voters are getting squishy on morality. Just look at Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who as Governor was grievously derelict in his duties by first lying about where he was going and then departing the country for a tryst with his lover in Argentina, leaving his state unwittingly ungoverned. Now Sanford has been elected to what may be a life-long sinecure in Congress as an Honorable Representative or maybe one day a senator. Even the creepy Larry Craig, waggling his fingers and his wedding ring under the bathroom door, had to be hounded out of office by angry Republicans after he suggested he was going to tough it out. What happened to a sense of shame, I ask myself.
The ranks of venal and corrupt Dem politicians are much larger than those of the Republicans, chiefly because the Republican voters are not particularly forgiving and weed out the moral derelicts quickly. The Dems, too, are subjected to vulgar media examination of their indiscretions, but the candidates or officials involved don’t care if people know they frequent prostitutes, cheated on exams, or lied about being a combat veteran. Such revelations have been proven to have no effect whatsoever on their lives and careers.
Decent people who to their own knowledge have nothing to be ashamed of do not want to touch public office with a ten-foot pole. They fear the dissection of their lives and the lives of their loved ones for public amusement. They don’t want to trade their dignity for the public eye. The very word politician has a stench about it. As we become more tolerant of the least worthy in our society representing us in Congress, the prospect of boarding the Congressional gravy train attracts more and more of the unprincipled and the immoral whose thick hides and absence of shame make them particularly well-suited to politics. If you don’t think that over time this affects the very nature of our government and our society, just look around you. The men and women who should be setting an example for all the country instead are making bad character a mark of honor. They don’t even know what’s in the Constitution, much less care about it.
Sometimes it just seems we cannot go farther down this road. I am not even sure it is accurate to speak of American society anymore. We are hopelessly and deeply divided and I wonder, is an amicable parting of the ways possible? Maybe. But in the meantime I think we should work harder than ever to increase the ranks of the good to do battle with the much larger ranks of the bad. We need two hundred more Ted Cruz’s and Rand Pauls. Then we might be able to throw the bums out.