By Mark Mellman - 10/19/05 12:00 AM EDT
Lord Acton would not be surprised by today’s Republicans. “Power tends to corrupt,” the British historian wrote to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Though they enjoy absolute power, the pervasiveness of Republican corruption is difficult to comprehend. The president’s top ally in the House stands indicted, while his top aide in the White House seems about to be charged and his chief Senate ally is under investigation. It is hard to recall a time when the stench of corruption around one party was so widespread through all of our institutions.
In line with Acton’s dictum, it is worth noting that except in the case of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the crimes were not venal. They were not aimed at amassing greater wealth, but rather were crimes of power.
Repeated admonishment by the ethics committee did not deter former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) in his quest to perpetuate his power by any means necessary, legal or not. Apparently unwilling to let a few laws stand in the way when elections were at stake, his allegedly illegal fundraising operation was part of an unprecedented effort to change the rules in the middle of the game by redrawing Texas’s congressional lines in between censuses to the benefit of the GOP. While the objective was legal, the entire enterprise was an abuse of power.
DeLay did not work to redraw congressional districts to rectify an earlier wrong, but only to create more Republican seats and only because he could. He embodied the logic articulated by Thucydides 2,400 years ago: “The strong do what they will. The weak will suffer what they must.” He worked to change the long-standing rules simply because it accrued to his advantage and because he could. Naked power became DeLay’s only goal and his only ethical touchstone.
But DeLay may finally learn that, in America, might no longer makes right.
Karl Rove, not surprisingly, played a more subtle game. He no doubt believed in his boss and in the president’s war. Ensconced in the White House as President Bush’s chief political adviser, he did not have to dirty himself with money. Information was his currency, and Rove sits astride the densest web of information the world has ever known.
Selectively doling out that data to punish an enemy or undercut a critic or protect himself was probably second nature. But precisely because information is power, its misuse is governed by law, as Mr. Rove (or Lewis Libby, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff) may soon discover to their horror.
Bill Frist’s alleged sin also stems from misuse of information, though only to enrich himself at the expense of a buyer who purchased his stock without the same knowledge that the senator enjoyed. Even if Frist is not guilty of insider trading, he has done irreparable harm to his credibility. The senator repeatedly told the public that his blind trust meant he had no idea whether he even owned stock in the family business. “As far as I know, I own no HCA stock,” Frist claimed to a TV audience in 2003, two weeks after his trustee wrote to him telling the senator that he did indeed own HCA shares.
So even if Frist escapes the clutches of Justice Department prosecutors and the Securities and Exchange Commission, like Moses he will be denied entry to the Promised Land as a result of his sin. Frist’s presidential campaign is over.
The Republicans culture of corruption will have wider political consequences as well. Voters’ now-innate distrust of politicians causes public opinion on such scandals to lag behind their burgeoning reality. In the meantime though, every campaign dollar raised by Rove, DeLay or Frist will be suspect and become a matter of controversy. And if the indictments come and convictions follow, Republicans’ abuses will end up helping to reduce the absolute power that has corrupted them.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.