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Wednesday, April 19, 2006 01:29 pm

Corruption comes in many colors

Adlai Stevenson on public morality and patriotism

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In the wake of the George Ryan verdict, there is a need to consult another Illinois governor about public morality and corruption. Ryan got caught in the basest kind, selling contracts for kickbacks and using public influence for private financial gain. He wasn’t clever enough to disguise his graft as campaign contributions, as smarter politicians do. And his dishonesty was primarily financial, rather than ideological or political. How does what he did compare with spying on Americans, torturing prisoners, or starting a war on false pretenses? Corruption in government was the issue in the 1952 presidential campaign, when Adlai Stevenson of Illinois was fending off Republican charges that there were Communists and crooks in the Truman administration. In a Los Angeles speech on Sept. 11, 1952, Stevenson answered that corruption should be an issue in every campaign because “the responsibility for our moral standards rests heaviest upon the men and women in public life, because public confidence in the integrity of the government is indispensable to faith in democracy. When we lose faith in the system, we have lost faith in everything we fight and stand for.” The crooks should be rooted out, of course. On this point Stevenson quoted Justice Charles Evans Hughes: “Neither political party has a monopoly of virtue or of rascality. Let wrong be exposed and punished, but let no partisan Pecksniffs affect a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. Guilt is personal and knows no party.” He added that it is just as important to support the good public servants as it is to punish the bad. Then Stevenson shifted to his characteristically uncommon thinking: “I’m frank to say I get a little confused about corruption in politics. We tend to think of it as something so simple, in the unsophisticated terms of graft — of cash on the barrelhead. But its forms are many. . . .” He decried the immorality of expediency, from the legislator who votes for special-interest bills “while he prates piously about economy.” He discussed the role played by campaign contributions, even back then: “To catch some votes, or for fear of losing some, many things are done which seem to me hard to distinguish from outright bribery.” “I do know,” he said, “that sound government ends when the leaders of special groups call the tune. . . . And I am convinced that the public servant who does the right thing, no matter whose toes are stepped on, does not lose all of the votes of the hands which go with those toes.” There was a corruption of power in Stevenson’s day, with U.S. military involvement in Korea and politicians eager to intervene militarily elsewhere. “The United States has very large power in the world today,” the Democratic candidate responded. “And the partner of power — the corollary — is responsibility. It is our high task to use our power with a sure hand and a steady touch — with the self-restraint that goes with confident strength. The purpose of our power must never be lost in the fact of our power — and the purpose, I take it, is the promotion of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” But the real corruption of Stevenson’s day was ideological. In the name of anti-communism, politicians fostered a self-serving climate of fear, much as some do in the name of anti-terrorism today. “The tragedy of our day is the climate of fear in which we live, and fear breeds repression,” Stevenson said in another speech during the 1952 campaign. “Too often sinister threats to the Bill of Rights, to freedom of the mind, are concealed under the patriotic cloak of anti-communism.” The answer, he said, is a larger patriotism: “When an American says that he loves his country, he means not only that he loves the New England hills, the prairies glistening in the sun, the wide and rising plains, the great mountains, and the sea. He means that he loves an inner air, an inner light in which freedom lives and in which a man can draw the breath of self-respect.” “With this patriotism — patriotism in its large and wholesome meaning — America can master its power and turn it to the noble cause of peace. We can maintain military power without militarism; political power without oppression; and moral power without compulsion or complacency.”
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