Richard Reeves

Why Abramoff? Why Politicians Steal

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- There were politics in my home growing up here. My father was a poor Republican lawyer in an almost totally Democratic world. In those days -- I was 10 years old -- I thought America was an Italian country governed by the Irish. They were all Democrats. We were the only white Protestant Republicans.

There came a day when my brother and I, lying on the floor of our bedroom, the only one in our little apartment, listened to the men in hats who had come to talk to my father about running for the City Commission on a "fusion" ticket of four Democrats and a Republican. Our father was being offered the chance to be a big shot.

He said, "No."

I was devastated. I asked my dad why he did that. "Whoever takes that spot," he said, "will end up in prison." That happened. Another Republican, a good friend of my father's, took the job and did end up behind bars.

Those were the days when politicians saw graft as their due, the same as in Third World countries or some counties in West Virginia. They hobnobbed with gamblers and other bad guys, and they generally made a pretty good living for their families for a time -- and for criminal attorneys after that. Then, over the years, the methods of corruption changed even if the instincts toward it did not.

There are more laws than there used to be, and the movement of money is more complicated than fat envelopes and briefcases. But one thing never changes: In a society where money equals power and vice versa, elected politicians and high government bureaucrats receive relatively little money in comparison to the power they have, which makes many of them easy marks for the devil's hands. Opportunity and temptation are always there when a salary man has the power to make a big boss or investor rich, or even richer, by changing a comma or a number in a law or a contract involving public works.

So, sometimes there is cash under the table, sometimes campaign contributions, sometimes deferred compensation in the form of jobs, lectures, consultancies or books coming to officials after their retirement. High military position can be as good as elected office in the post-service lucrative years.

We have developed a system bound to corrupt the resentful who see themselves handling the society's toughest work. At lower levels, policemen and minor civil servants with enormous power and small paychecks live in temptation, surrounded by dirty money.

Among politicians, I have watched more than a few friends and acquaintances go off to prison. There are no hard and fast rules for corruption, but I have noticed that many Republicans go wrong because they believe that it is business as usual, un-American to pass up a chance at profit. They do what comes naturally in the private sector, but some of what comes naturally to a speculator is against the law for a public servant.

Democrats I've known have gone wrong because they came to believe they had earned their way into a privileged class, complete with free meals and vacations, life on the fast track. Then comes a day, often when they are first faced with college tuitions for their children, that they realize they can't afford the life of the people asking, begging them for little favors. They step onto the slippery slope of favors and loans and then bribes.

Such stories come and go. The public forgets until the next time.

But the case of Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist stealing money from Indian casinos and other pots of government-subsidized cash and spreading it as campaign contributions to the compliant and weak in high office, may be a next time to be remembered. This scandal seems to have it all -- greed, comedy, a guy who thought like the Godfather and dozens if not hundreds of public officials -- and we may soon find ourselves asking how our government really functions in a time of easy money and easy excuses. With luck, we'll be made better by the lessons of the revelations -- at least until the next time.

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