Monday, November 1, 2010

Two cheers for hypocrisy

Apologists for the role that money plays in American elections often point out that this is nothing new; the only difference between today and a supposedly more idealistic and virtuous past was that politicians were more hypocritical in the old days: they kept the smoke-filled rooms and money bags hidden out of sight from polite company.

There's some truth to that; if you read the memoirs of the New Dealers, for example, you encounter plenty of political wheeling and dealing and party fund raising. The fiction that the crass business of politics did not exist was so much a part of the American ethos that to call a president a politician used to be an insult. Of course America's greatest presidents were politicians to the core even as they were great statesmen and leaders; Lincoln understood and played the game as well as anyone, and I always liked the anecdote about FDR who would sometimes make the point to visitors that he was a roll-up-his shirtsleeves politician with the best of 'em by having them draw a line across the map of the United States, and he would proceed to reel off the name of every county it passed through.

And yet, the very fact that money was kept hidden had the salutary effect of making it possible for politicians on occasion to rise above politics. If you have to profess to be idealistically motivated, there is of course much bluster and cant. But once in a while it can also shame you into doing the right thing.

In today's climate, by contrast, politics have become almost about nothing but the process of politics itself. What used to be an unseemly necessity, a means to an end, is now exalted as an end in itself. Political reporters cover the cynical strategizing and competing campaign coffers as if that were the central story. The once anonymous backroom guys who did the dirty work are now celebrated and profiled and admired for the cleverness of their cynical handiwork of attack ads and the campaign jujitsu moves they innovate, and above all for the money they haul in.

It is not just that money talks; money so dominates the proceedings these days that no one else can get a word in edgewise. I remember first grasping this back in the 1990s while perusing the infamous diaries of Bob Packwood, the senator from Oregon who resigned after he was revealed (as Time aptly put it) to be "a letch, lush, and liar." Five thousand pages of the senator's own diaries had been turned over to the Senate Ethics Committee as part of their investigation, and when the documents were made public everyone else in town was eagerly gleaning them for the salacious tidbits. But what I found myself transfixed by was not the sex but the money. The sex was here and there; the money was day in and day out. It's no exaggeration to say that every waking moment of Bob Packwood's life as a United States senator — and I am sure it was no different for any of his 99 colleagues — was spent thinking about money, finding money, worrying about money, raising money. There wasn't one morning, afternoon, or evening that was not devoted to arranging fundraisers, attending fundraisers, speculating about possible future fundraisers; every meal, every trip, every phone call was an opportunity to haul in some more cash.

And this was not just an election-year phenomenon: it was full time, all the time. The first thing a  newly elected legislator does upon arriving in Washington is to start raising money for his reelection.

When you read the accounts of the New Dealers it was manifest that politics was important and interesting and exciting; it was also manifest that it was never but a means to an end. Agree with them or not, they came to Washington to do something and to accomplish something; they spent a lot of time arguing about what was best for the country (hell, if you listent to the Nixon tapes, even Nixon for god's sake spent a lot of time discussing what was best for the country, in between obstructing justice, suborning perjury, and ordering burglaries).

Today a politician's politician like Mitch McConnell doesn't even have to pretend that he's in Washington to accomplish anything, except win. "The single most important thing we want to achieve . . ." he began the other day — was, what? bring the war in Afghanistan to a successful conclusion? reduce wasteful spending on pork barrel projects? place Social Security on a sound fiscal footing? inspire Americans to serve their country? safeguard individual liberties? make educational opportunities more widely available? reduce the terrible debt we keep hearing about, even?

No, the "single most important" goal that the Republican party hopes to achieve as a result of its expected electoral gains tomorrow, the Senate GOP leader declared without an apparent blush, "is for President Obama to be a one-term president."

Oh, at times like this for a little hypocritical decency. The problem with money in politics is not so much that it buys elections, or even politicians' votes; the problem is it has bought our soul.