The Rep. Joe Sestak affair, still playing out, is a depressing reminder of how the process of corruption works, and more depressingly, how corruption spreads like a virulent flu, leaping from individuals to organizations to institutions and finally to our culture itself.
Back in September, the Denver Post ran a well-sourced article stating that in order to protect Democratic Sen. Michael Bennett from the threatened primary challenge of popular former state Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, the White House, in the person of Jim Messina, President Barack Obama’s deputy chief of staff, told Romanoff that a plum position in the administration would be his if he avoided the primary. The Post’s sources said that Messina offered specific suggestions, including a job at USAID, the foreign aid agency. Romanoff, who apparently turned down the deal and is currently opposing Bennett in Colorado, refused to answer any questions.
This was treated as a local story, and the national media ignored it. Then, last month, a similar story surfaced, this time from a Congressman. Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Sestak, gearing to to run against party-switching U.S. Senator Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania primaries, told a Philadelphia TV news anchor that “someone” at the White House tried to discourage him from running, and also offered him a job (rumored to be Secretary of the Navy) if he would back off. Like Romanoff, Sestak refused.
Again, hardly anyone paid attention, because all the national media wanted to do is talk about health care reform, the economy, and really important stuff like how Ellen was going to do on American Idol. The normal sources of investigative journalism, still shamlessly rooting for the President and his policies even though their job is to dig for the facts, don’t want to cause problems for the Administration at a crucial time. Note that I am not say that these organizations are intentionally burying stories. I am saying that because they don’t want to undermine a President they support and agree with politically, the major news networks and papers are not being as aggressive and proactive as they need to be. As a result it takes an organization that really does want to undermine the Administration to do what is properly the job of the news media as whole, and the conservative publication The American Specatator jumped into the breach. It published a story linking the Sestak and Romanoff reports for a very good reason: offering a Federal job in exchange for a political favor is a Federal crime:
18 USC Sec. 211 – Bribery, Graft and Conflicts of Interest: Acceptance or solicitation to obtain appointive public office states that”Whoever solicits or receives … any….thing of value, in consideration of the promise of support or use of influence in obtaining for any person any appointive office or place under the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.”
A couple of dogged members of the press corps, from conservative-leaning media, of course, then began to ask Press Secretary Robert Gibbs about the matter, and received repeated brush-offs, as in “I’ll get back to you on that,” “Gee, I know I said I’d check on that, give some more time,” and more of the same. Still no interest from the big media (except Fox, which as the White House tells us, isn’t a “real” news organization because, I suppose, real news organizations don’t report misconduct and lawbreaking at the White House if a Democrat lives there.) Then good old Howard Specter—that paragon of integrity who jumped from the Republicans to the Democrats when he realized that it was his best shot at being re-elected, even though it was a clear betrayal of those who voted for him, the organizations that funded his re-election, and his colleagues in the U.S. Senate—again did what he does. In order to take a shot at his primary opponent, Sestak, Sen. Specter told an interviewer last week,
“There’s a crime called misprision of a felony. Misprision of a felony is when you don’t report a crime. So you’re getting into pretty deep areas here in these considerations.”
Thus did former prosecutor Specter imply that the White House had committed a crime when it tried to protect his Senate seat. Followers of Specter’s consistently cynical and Machiavellian career know that he did not do this out of any genuine commitment to the rules of law, but rather because he would gladly throw anyone under the bus for his own political gain, even the President. (Note to Democrats: This is what you get when you court a guy to whom loyalty, gratitude and integrity are alien concepts.)
Still there is still nary a ripple in the mainstream media.
The Denver Post story and the testimony of a Democratic Congressman are convincing evidence that all of this isn’t a figment of Glenn Beck’s imagination. What does it tell us about corruption?
1. As G.O.P. Rep. Daryl Issa told Fox News, “Right now, they’re doing the ‘I won’t confirm or deny,’ and for us, it leaves two possibilities. One is the promise of transparency in this administration is just shot. The second one is even worse, which is either Sestak is lying or the administration has done something wrong and is covering it up and they should be the first to want to clear that up even if they’re not wanting to support transparency as they said they would when they came to office.” That is exactly right. This President was elected on assurances that he would champion transparency and not practice Washington politics as usual. If the White House itself is using illegal hard-ball tactics to manipulate the electoral process, that isn’t merely business as usual, but Nixonian.
2. An unethical tactic quickly becomes a habit. Ethics Alarms argued that critics prematurely jumped to the conclusion that Rep. Jim Matheson’s brother got his judicial nomination from President Obama as a quid pro quo for the Congressman vote for Obama’s health care bill. The Sestak affair suggests that I may have been wrong.
3. Using Federal jobs as political currency is illegal for a very good reason: it perverts the purpose of government. It is the duty of all those elected or appointed to power to make good faith efforts to fill positions according to who is best qualified to do what is in the best interests of the country. The White House doesn’t own those jobs; the public does.
4. Using this tactic to force qualified candidates out of political races is especially offensive. It directly interferes with the right of voters to have good options and a selection of qualified candidates. For the White House to be guaranteeing the re-election of unpopular senators by buying off potential opposition is especially revolting. It is an abuse of power.
5. The failure of respected news organizations like the Washington Post, the New York Times and CNN to cover this story at all to this point is irresponsible, incompetent, unfair, and little short of sinister. Their negligence converts what raises serious and substantive questions about the integrity of the Obama Administration into a “conservative media story,” thus discrediting it and making any commentator, blog or website that references it “biased” by the mere fact that they won’t ignore it like the “responsible media.” From a personal personal perspective, I resent this. I don’t appreciate feeling like I am getting into bed with the likes of the “Birthers,” Sarah Palin and Michael Savage by writing about matters that all of the media has a duty to examine. I don’t like having to watch Fox’s endless succession of feisty Right Wing blondes and Howard Beale clones to learn about the tactics President Obama and his aides appear to be favoring, even though they are alien to the values he promised to bring to Washington. I am furious that so much of the newsmedia sees its role as protecting and fawning over this Administration, as if wishing it would be honest and competent would make it so. The ethics of the journalism in America hasn’t been this deplorable since the worst of “yellow journalism.”
6. Are you saying, “Oh come on. Everyone knows jobs are traded for favors in Washington. It’s not news!”? Then the corruption is complete, isn’t it? We are corrupted. From the White House, to the choice of candidates, to the appointment of high positions—to the courts, to the Congress, to the legislative process—to the media, to the public, to society and the culture. Ignore crimes, ignore deception, ignore manipulation, ignore bias. Ignore aspiration, ignore ethics. Because, after all, everybody does it.
And that is how corruption spreads.
[Special appreciation is due to The American Spectator for its fine and determined reporting on this story.]