Water Man Spouts

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Gutter Age

"Why the matter is simple enough. A Congressional appropriation costs money. Just reflect, for instance. A majority of the House committee, say $10,000 apiece -- $40,000; a majority of the Senate committee, the same each -- $40,000; a little extra for one or two chairmen of one or two such committees, say $10,000 each, $20,000; and there’s $100,000 of the money gone, to begin with. Then, seven male lobbyists, at $3,000 each -- $21,000; one female lobbyist, $3,000; a high moral Congressman or Senator here and there – the high moral ones cost more, because they give tone to a measure …..well, never mind the details, the total in clean numbers foots up $118,254.42 thus far!"
--Mark Twain; The Gilded Age

Yesterday, the issue of political corruption was in the forefront of televised discussions. Rod Blagojevich, recently impeached and now facing charges related to reportedly attempting to "sell" a US Senate seat, appeared on the Letterman and Larry King shows, attempting to convince the public that he will be proven innocent.

Former Senator Tom Daschle removed himself from consideration for heading the department of Health and Human Services, when it was revealed that he had to pay $128, 203 in "back taxes," along with $11,964 in interest.

There are supporters of both men who believe that they are being singled out for doing things that may other politicians do. And certainly, there is something disturbing about those who have committed far more serious crimes – George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are but two examples – avoiding legal consequence.

I found myself thinking of one of Mark Twain’s wonderful books. The era after the Civil War would become known as "The Gilded Age," after his story of political corruption. The previous era, now fondly remembered as "The Golden Age," had been a time of kinder and gentler corruption. It is still possible to think of this period in entirely positive terms, so long as one does not allow some college professor with a chip on his or her shoulder to tarnish it with subversive talk about slaves, Indians, women, and poor folk.

After the Civil War, however, federal politicians began to play a more active role in the world of economics. And when there was money to be made, as Twain noted, many politicians became invested in bribery, favoritism, inefficiency, and waste. A new group of powerful individuals and families, known as the "robber barons," became the engineers of the national political-economic agenda.

This agenda involved "how the West was won." We often think of the 1862 Homestead Act, which allowed private citizens title to 160 acres of Indian land, for a small registration fee. But the West was not "won" by hardy pioneers in covered wagons; manifest destiny rode the rails. Between 1865 and 1900, politicians gave the railroad robber barons about a quarter of a million square acres of land – which is more than the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin combined. And the "registration fee" was paid by the common man.

I suspect that the present era qualifies as "The Gutter Age." While some may think it began with Richard Nixon’s resigning in disgrace as a result of the series of crimes known as Watergate, I’m not so sure. Nixon and other politicians who have faced consequences for their crimes and abuses of the power of their office have merely passed the line of acceptability that the others have set. They have been sacrificed to both satisfy the general public, and to ease the consciences of other corrupt politicians.

The Gutter Age began, in my opinion, on the day that Gerald Ford left the Oval Office. Thomas DeFrank’s recent book on Ford – and DeFrank was friends with him – details the controversial manner in which Gerald Ford prostituted his position as ex-President for financial gain.

Ford was already a multi-millionaire before leaving office, DeFrank notes, and he kept his business dealings low-key until 1980, in case he could become the republican candidate to challenge President Jimmy Carter. But, after that opportunity failed to arise, Ford began to serve the business community. In 1981, Newsweek ran a feature article, "Jerry Ford Incorporated," which detailed his ties to banking, oil, mining, and other interests. His annual aircraft/traveling expenses alone cost over a million dollars. And all of this was separate from his "speaking fees," a not uncommon practice among retired politicians.

Ford, DeFrank writes, was deeply offended by the Newsweek article. But he was outraged when Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan all expressed disapproval of his prostituting the presidency. His self-righteousness, in my opinion, marks the threshold for The Gutter Age.


Post a Comment

<< Home