In politics today, intention, symbolism, and rhetoric are everything; facts, nothing.
by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
The Roman moralist Plutarch wrote a number of parallel lives of illustrious Greek and Roman notables to offer his Greek-reading audience ethical lessons about character, virtue, and culture. He was trying to teach his fellow Roman citizens the importance of ethics, and to remind them that their own ancestors were often as illustrious as the great Greeks of the past.
Let us try to use his example to learn something about modern morality from the contrasts within a few matched pairs of contemporary notables, prominent in the recent news.
I know from media accounts that someone called Richard Fuld supposedly ran the once cash-laden and 158-year-old Lehman Brothers investment and banking house into the ground. Indeed, various newspapers and news shows convinced me I should dislike Fuld — given his apparent arrogance to his underlings, and insidious greed in harvesting an aggregate $300 million in salary and bonuses over eight years from his sick firm.
So I confess I was not particularly bothered to hear that someone in the company gym supposedly punched Fuld in the face after his brazen and shameless congressional testimony.
But why have we not heard commensurate censure of former whiz kid Robert Rubin at Citigroup? The stock of that mega-lending institution has descended from blue-chip status to being now nearly worthless. I was recently talking to a teller in Fresno at a small branch office of Citibank, who sighed, “Who’d have thought I may lose my job because we knew more about running a tiny branch office than those guys in New York who ran us?”
While among the top echelon at Citigroup (as someone called “Citigroup Inc. director and senior counselor”) Rubin took in an aggregate $115 million in pay and bonuses — even though his bank’s stock crashed and lost 75 percent of its value, and now the conglomerate totters close to bankruptcy. On Wall Street it appears that the role of a “senior counselor” earning over $100 million is to use one’s influence with people one has met in government to lobby them to do things for one’s present employer that they would otherwise not necessarily think was ethical — such as trying to get the government to bail out a Citigroup concern like Ken Lay’s bankrupt Enron.
I recall that Robert Rubin, as Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, oversaw the deregulation of Wall Street that certainly contributed to the present meltdown. But while we can associate the name Fuld with Lehman Brothers, and Ken Lay with Enron, and both with abject greed, probable malfeasance, and systematic incompetence, why are we unable to make the similar connection between Citigroup’s near collapse, its reckless foray into the morass of subprime loans, and Robert Rubin’s very lucrative, but ultimately disastrous leadership role within the banking conglomerate?
Such an examination might be useful inasmuch as Rubin’s own protégés Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner will now oversee the nation’s financial policy for the new Obama administration. On a final note, examine Rubin’s Fuld-like response to such charges: Apparently he claims as a “senior advisor” and member of the board of directors of Citigroup, he had both no responsibility for lunatic decisions of his company, but yet enough responsibility to be worth $115 million.
I remember why most Republicans, other than Colin Powell, abandoned the soon-to-be convicted Ted Stevens. And the names of Mark Foley and Larry Craig are now understandably infamous. It is altogether fine and proper that Republicans turned on their own miscreants, who needed to be turned on for their various misdeeds.
But why in the world is Rep. Charles Rangel still the Chairman of the House Ways and Means committee which oversees U.S. tax policy — especially at this critical juncture in our nation’s financial history?
I say “Why?” not out of sarcasm, but out of real bewilderment: Rangel’s record of financial and ethical improprieties is no longer a matter of hypocrisy, but rather one of probable criminality.
Let us count the ways: (1) Rangel paid no federal income tax on some $75,000 in rental income from his Caribbean villa — that lapse would result in a felony tax-evasion charge for the rest of us who dared to try that year in and year out. (2) Something called Nabobs Industries gave $1 million to something called the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York — and, apparently in exchange, got tens of millions of dollars in tax waivers from Rangel’s committee. Surely if Scooter Libby went to prison for faulty recall about not being the first one to “out” (non-covert) CIA operative Valerie Plame, a special prosecutor could also examine Rangel’s role in what may have resulted in a nearly $1 billion shortfall to the federal treasury. (3) Rangel seems to be claiming his New York campaign office as his home in order to continue to garner rent-control exemptions, improperly saving him thousands of dollars through aggregate subsidies. That someone who oversees the drafting of American tax policies and regulation cannot follow them himself is now a statement of fact, not baseless slander.
Then we come to the office of the U.S. Attorney General. We all remember Alberto Gonzales’s painful 2007 testimony before Congress, where he was publicly humiliated by outraged Congressional Democrats for his halting replies, failing memory, and apparent inability to advise administration kingpins that their anti-terrorism zeal was dangerously bordering on the unconstitutional and unlawful.
The subtext of liberal criticism was that Gonzales was both a moral weakling who could not speak Truth to Power, and a sort of affirmative-action mockery, an example of one of those cynical attempts by conservatives, in condescending fashion, to appoint less than qualified minorities to high posts, in the expectation that political correctness would offer cover to such compliant fellow-traveling right-wingers. Gonzalez resigned under Congressional and media pressure, his reputation so damaged he could not find work with any major Washington law firm.
Given such past sermonizing about the need for independence and ethical resolve at the attorney general’s office, there should be little chance that someone who facilitated the pardon of Marc Rich, the odious fugitive tax and oil cheat, would ever be nominated — much less confirmed to the same post.
Rich, remember, while on the lam and through surrogates, had donated monies to various Clinton and Democratic appendages. Then as a wanted fugitive in Europe (on the FBI’s most wanted list, no less), expected and received a presidential pardon in return. It was about as quid pro quo as could be.
In turn, Eric Holder, as a compliant high official at the Justice Department, apparently was both afraid to cross the Clintons and, by his obsequious subservience to top Democratic insiders, perhaps conniving to ensure a top spot for himself in the then probable Gore administration to come. Thanks to Holder’s deft efforts, Clinton pardoned Rich a few hours before he left office. Few mentioned that Rich had stealthily bought and sold Iranian oil while U.S. citizens were held hostage in Teheran.
If Gonzales could be faulted for unwise zealotry in pursuit of national security, then Holder could be damned for unwise zealotry in the pursuit of freeing a billionaire fugitive on the run to enhance his own career. I leave the reader to ascertain why the Hispanic Gonzalez was branded as inept and given no quarter despite his inspiring personal saga, while the suggestion that the African-American Holder has proven he could not be reliable as the highest law enforcement official of the land would be deemed insensitive. Who knows? Perhaps the distinction may have something to do with their respective politics.
Then there is the strange case of Sen. Chris Dodd. Future economic historians may trace the origins of the September financial collapse back to the deregulation of the federally affiliated Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae lending agencies, and the banking industry’s shenanigans in allowing the unqualified to receive improper loans — all under political pressure from Congressional leaders.
Somehow Dodd seems to have had an uncanny ability to have been at Ground Zero of both implosions. Here are the facts: Chris Dodd is currently chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. As such, he refinanced his own mortgage property through (the now bankrupt) Countrywide’s “V.I.P.” program. That is, Dodd was given an unusually favorable loan discount that over the life of his mortgage in theory would have saved him several thousand dollars. Yet Senate rules make it illegal for members to knowingly receive gifts worth $100 or more a year from private businesses like Countrywide that make use of lobbyists. What’s more, Countrywide had also contributed $21,000 to Dodd’s senate campaigns since 1997. Worse still, Dodd received about $70,000 in campaign gifts from Bank of America — which bought out the bankrupt Countrywide.
Remember, as well, that Sen. Dodd serially asserted that both Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were fundamentally strong — even as both were on the verge of bankruptcy. Dodd was strangely confident in the insolvent entities perhaps because he had received more campaign contributions from the two failed agencies than did any other legislator in Congress.
I think all our grandfathers at one time in this country might have thought it morally wrong for a congressional banking overseer to take money from banks — and in particular when they were in the process of being looted and run into the ground. If the Senate Banking Committee Chairman is improperly receiving mortgage preferences and outright cash from banking concerns, then who will police the police?
Contrast Dodd’s uninterrupted tenure with the case of the former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Lott once foolishly shot off his mouth in odious fashion at the 100th birthday party of the late Dixiecrat, former segregationist and fellow Senate colleague Strom Thurmond.
Words matter. So although Lott quickly offered apologies for his endorsement of Thrumond’s reprehensible candidacy over a half-century ago, at the moment he finished his salutation, he was through as a Senate leader. Under pressure from both Senate colleagues and the White House, he resigned his leadership position. The charge against Lott was a racially insensitive remark, not a systematic pattern of offering near bankrupt firms public approbation in exchange for cash contributions and preferential treatment.
Lott was understandably and with cause sacked by the powers that be in Washington; Dodd curiously now plays a crusading role in Congressional damnation of Wall Street greed, and the supposedly inept Bush administration’s regulation of the banking industry.
I could go on and on with these Plutarachean examples of Parallel Lives but you get the picture. Here, the contrast is not the respective virtues of Greece and Rome. Nor is there any regret whatsoever that liberals of good faith thankfully scrutinize the bad judgment and even criminal activity of wayward conservatives. The problem instead is why we continuously consider liberal transgressions as misdemeanors and their conservative counterparts as felonies.
If Plutarch once believed that action, not intention matters (otherwise, as Aristotle noted, we could all be moral in our sleep), we moderns believe the reverse — that proper thinking can often excuse improper acts.
Why so? Perhaps we suspect that a Rubin or Dodd want to do more good things for the poor than do a Fuld or Lott, and so we should interpret their transgressions as atypical lapses rather than characteristic behavior.
Perhaps we think an Attorney-General designate Holder is properly cognizant of our long liberal efforts to force the system to change and therefore deserves some exemption for ethical blindness on the job. Again in contrast, Attorney-General emeritus Gonzales is unduly cynical in not appreciating that progressive thinking is responsible for his job, and therefore he must be held accountable immediately and for the rest of his professional life for supposed character flaws.
Perhaps we think a life-long crusading African-American like Rangel merely fudges a bit here and there in the twilight of a long exemplary career seeking to ensure racial harmony and parity for his nation, and therefore is absent-minded rather than felonious and hypocritical. Yet the sordid behavior of his white male conservative counterparts provides valuable elucidation about their depravity and bigotry — and is proper grounds for their eventual departures not merely from posts of influence, but from the Congress altogether.
Perhaps — as we saw from the asymmetrical media treatment of the two candidates during the recent campaign — in matters of power and politics today, intention, symbolism, and rhetoric are everything; facts essentially nothing.
Or maybe less cynically — in the minds of self-appointed liberal moralists concerned about the greater good — exalted ends at times necessarily entail regrettable means.
©2008 Victor Davis Hanson