By Betsy Rothstein - 11/30/05 12:00 AM EST
|Slick talk and bribes — a $2.55 million estate, antiques, rugs, yacht-club fees. With admitted criminal self-indulgence such as this, it’s no wonder that politicians have a bad rap. Like used-car dealers, lawyers and journalists, lawmakers are widely regarded as untrustworthy, even slimy.|| |
This week, Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) quit in disgrace as it was revealed that he took $2.4 million in bribes. In return for legislative favors, he grew richer and lived large — the aforementioned antique furniture and rugs adorned his home — all the while cheating taxpayers out of honorable representation in Congress.
Last week wasn’t any better: Public-relations executive Michael Scanlon, an associate of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and a former aide to ex-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), entered a plea agreement in which he claims to have bribed public officials and defrauded Indian tribes. He faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. His claims have turned prosecutors’ eyes toward Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio). Ney denies any wrongdoing.
Tarnished lawmakers are nothing new.
In June, Cynthia Ore, a 29-year-old Rockville, Md., woman who was having an affair with married Rep. Don Sherwood (R-Pa.), filed a $5.5 million lawsuit claiming the congressman beat her throughout their five-year affair.
On Sept. 15 last year, police responded to a 911 call from Sherwood’s Washington apartment. Ore said the congressman had assaulted and choked her.
Sherwood and Ore settled her suit out of court this month.
“That’s not something we’re talking about,” says Jake O’Donnell, Sherwood’s press secretary, when asked if his boss’s behavior affects politicians negatively.
Some lawmakers not embroiled in scandal make light of politicians’ place in public opinion.
“Used-car salesmen have now changed their name to salesmen of home-owned vehicles,” Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) says. He adds that while voters “may not like the whole field of politics, it may not translate to people not liking their elected official.”
Stan Hale, a sales manager at J. Koons Pontiac GMC in Vienna, Va., says that the poor reputation of used-car dealers has evaporated and that politicians will always have a worse rap.
“We all have that ax, don’t we?” Hale says in a country twang. “In the car business, you’re not allowed to lie. There’s too much information everywhere. … [But] if a politician’s mouth is moving, he’s lying. ... You expect them to lie.”
Lawmakers who have faced ethical difficulties include former Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.), who in the summer of 2001 captured the nation’s attention when Chandra Levy, a D.C. intern with whom the married lawmaker was rumored to be having an affair, vanished and was later found dead in Rock Creek Park. The lawmaker was not charged in her murder, but voters threw him out of office in the 2002 election.
And then there are cases in which lawmakers are accused of wrongdoing in pursuit not of personal wealth but of power. For instance, DeLay recently appeared in Texas court on money-laundering charges related to state campaign finance laws.
Steve Danon, a Republican public-relations executive in San Diego, says politicians’ bad reputation is unjust.
“The vast majority get up every morning and want to do good,” Danon says. “It’s the media that focuses on the one or two bad apples, but you have these extreme circumstances where you have one or two bad individuals that make a bad name for the rest.
“The fact is, they are not all corrupt. If there is a lesson here, it is that you can’t become arrogant. Those who become arrogant get into trouble.”
Danon calls Cunningham’s bribes a “total break in confidence with the constituents of the 50th District. It’s a black eye for San Diego.”
Politicians know that the failings of others taint them all.
“There’s a higher level of cynicism about politics, more than 10 years ago,” says Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who in his first year in office is still basking in star status. “We live in a skeptical time, partly because we get more information and the 24-hour news cycle.”
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) deals with the widespread belief that politicians are corrupt by reasoning: “Just remember, the polls will always say that people don’t have a high opinion of Congress. But when you ask them specifically about their member, they have a high opinion, and that’s the case with me in Florida.
“[Recent cases] don’t help, and the noise that goes along with it, the rumors, is detrimental.”
Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) has an interesting take: “There has always been a natural skepticism about politics and politicians. It helps stop the tendency to create political dynasties. It’s also our internal check against abuses.”
The outspoken congressman says politicians’ having bad reputations is a matter of checks and balances and is not a bad thing.
“There is a salutary side to it,” he says. “It’s one of the reasons we’re not a banana republic.”
Tell Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), who switched parties last year, that the general public does not like politicians and he replies, “I don’t either. I’m just like everyone. I love my own congressman [presumably himself?], but I don’t love Congress.”
Referring to recent indictments against politicians and officials, and to other cases over the years, he says, “I don’t even know if they are bad applies. They are loudmouth apples. You can get some bad ones in the group. That’s biblical.”
Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) is emotional about the bad rap that politicians have: “A lot of us came into politics because we have a certain ethical orientation. My father was a minister; my mother was a beautician. They instilled in me the honor that is in service.
“There is no limit to what good you can do if you don’t get hung up on who gets the credit.”
The trouble begins when an appearance on the evening news becomes more important than serving, he says.
Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) says that when people hear what he does for a living, their next comment is often, “I hope he has a son my daughter can go out with.”
Otherwise, he squarely blames the media for politicians’ bad reputation and hits back, saying, “Oh and we never have scandals about plagiarism in The New York Times?”
The Georgia congressman recalls a Time magazine piece published at the onset of former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) rise to power that suggested he would be mean to the poor.
“Why wouldn’t Time say, ‘New Speaker, great election, read all about it?’ From the very beginning, it made him an enemy,” Kingston says. “Why?”
Kingston is normally cheery with reporters, but this subject makes him angry: “There are a lot of journalists who are frustrated politicians. How else would people get the impression that we are shallow?”