Back into the cesspool!
Some of my favorite stories feature craven pols betraying the public interest. Just give me a steady diet of corruption porn. It’s been a good week, with Illinois Governor Blagojevich taking the concept of “felony stupid” to a whole new level: (i) He was auctioning off a Senate seat, (ii) held by the man who was just elected president, (iii) while under criminal investigation himself! Did he really think no one would notice?
Gov. Blagojevich: warm-up for the perp walk?
As a history writer, though, I must insist that we take a moment or two to recognize some of the great moments in American political corruption. In my forthcoming book about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, I recount a classic story about the witty Congressman Thad Stevens, who was asked by Abraham Lincoln whether a proposed Cabinet member (Simon Cameron) would “steal.” “Well,” Stevens replied, “he wouldn’t steal a hot stove.”
Word of Stevens’ remark filtered back to Cameron, who was enraged. He tracked Stevens down and demanded a retraction. Next time he saw Lincoln, Stevens complied. Reminding Lincoln of his statement that Cameron would not steal a hot stove, Stevens said, “I now take that back.”
A few delicious episodes:
— Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA), discovered to have $90,000 in cash in his home freezer. Cold cash, indeed. The congressman (who just lost his seat to the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress) denies all wrongdoing. Of course.
— Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA), who took over $2 million in bribes from a defense contractor and invested part of the boodle in his houseboat/yacht, the Duke-Stir.
— Governor Spiro Agnew of my home state of Maryland, accepting kickbacks from highway contractors while serving as vice president to Richard Nixon.
— New York Collectors in the 19th Century: A major portion of the federal government’s revenue came from import taxes levied by this office in New York harbor, and numerous collectors siphoned off a share for themselves, including Samuel Swartwout (an Andrew Jackson appointee) (also a participant in Aaron Burr’s treason conspiracy) and Henry Smythe (an Andrew Johnson appointee).
— Cornelius Wendell, who handled all congressional printing contracts in the 1850s. Wendell’s contracts gave him double the competitive price and he used the balance to support Democratic congressional candidates, Democratic newspapers, and his own welfare — all as directed by President James Buchanan.
— Governor Richard Leche of Louisiana, who issued the classic statement: “When I took the oath of office, I didn’t take any vows of poverty.” No, indeed he didn’t. Leche was convicted of in 1940 of taking kickbacks in the sale of trucks to the state highway department, stealing federal funds to build private homes, and other peccadilloes.
And then there are obvious ones like Boss Tweed of New York, Teapot Dome (Harding Administration) . . . I’m looking forward to more salacious details about Governor Rod. Stay tuned.
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