Washington is the city where the scandals happen. Every American knows this, but we also believe, if only vaguely, that the really monumental scandals are a thing of the past, that the golden age of misgovernment-for-profit ended with the cavalry charge and the robber barons, at about the same time presidents stopped wearing beards.
I moved to Washington in 2003, just in time for the comeback, for the hundred-year flood. At first it was only a trickle in the basement, a little stream released accidentally by the president’s friends at Enron. Before long, though, the levees were failing all over town, and the city was inundated with a muddy torrent of graft.
How are we to dissect a deluge like this one? We might begin by categorizing the earmarks handed out by Congress, sorting the foolish earmarks from the costly earmarks from the earmarks made strictly on a cash basis. We could try a similar approach to government contracting: the no-bid contracts, the no-oversight contracts, the no-experience contracts, the contracts handed out to friends of the vice president. We might consider the shoplifting career of one of the president’s former domestic policy advisers or the habitual plagiarism of the president’s liaison to the Christian right. And we would certainly have to find some way to parse the extraordinary incompetence of the executive branch, incompetence so fulsome and steady and reliable that at some point Americans stopped being surprised and began simply to count on it, to think of incompetence as the way government works.
But the onrushing flow swamps all taxonomies. Mass firing of federal prosecutors; bribing of newspaper columnists; pallets of shrink-wrapped cash “misplaced” in Iraq; inexperienced kids running the Baghdad stock exchange; the discovery that many of Alaska’s leading politicians are apparently on the take — our heads swim. We climb to the rooftop, but we cannot find the heights of irony from which we might laugh off the blend of thug and Pharisee that was Tom DeLay — or dispel the nauseating suspicion, quickly becoming a certainty, that the government of our nation deliberately fibbed us into a pointless, catastrophic war.
Bad Apples All Around
So let us begin on the solid ground of these simple facts: this spectacular episode of misrule has coincided with both the political triumph of conservatism and with the rise of the Washington area to the richest rank of American metropolises. In the period I am describing, gentlemen of the right rolled through the capital like lords of creation. Every spigot was open, and every indulgence slopped out for their gleeful wallowing. All the clichés roared at full, unembarrassed volume: the wines gurgled, the T-bones roasted, the golf courses beckoned, the Learjets zoomed, the contractors’ glass buildings sprouted from the earth, and the lobbyists’ mansions grew like brick-colonial mushrooms on the hills of northern Virginia.
Democrats, for their part, have tried to explain the flood of misgovernment as part of a “culture of corruption,” a phrase at once obviously true and yet so amorphous as to be quite worthless. Republicans have an even simpler answer: government failed, they tell us, because it is the nature of government enterprises to fail. As for the great corruption cases of recent years, they cluck, each is merely a one-of-a-kind moral lapse unconnected to any particular ideology — an individual bad apple with no effect on the larger barrel.
Which leaves us to marvel helplessly at what appears to be a spectacular run of lousy luck. My, what a lot of bad apples they are growing these days!
Corruption is uniquely reprehensible in a democracy because it violates the system’s first principle, which we all learned back in the sunshiny days of elementary school: that the government exists to serve the public, not particular companies or individuals or even elected officials. We Are the Government, insisted the title of a civics primer published in the earnest year of 1945. “The White House belongs to you,” its dust jacket told us. “So do all the other splendid buildings in Washington, D.C. For you are a citizen of the United States.” For you, young citizen, does the Post Office carry letters to every hamlet in the nation. For you does the Department of Agriculture research better plowing methods and the Bureau of Labor Statistics add up long columns of numbers.
The government and its vast workforce serve the people: The idea is so deep in the American grain that we can’t bring ourselves to question it, even in this disillusioned age. Republicans and Democrats may fight over how big government should be and exactly what it should do, but almost everyone shares those baseline good intentions, we believe, that devotion to the public interest.
We continue to believe this in even the most improbable circumstances…
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Thomas Frank, the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?, is the founding editor of The Baffler, a contributing editor at Harper’s, and, most recently, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. His WSJ columns can be read at his website. He lives, of course, in Washington D.C. and this essay has been adapted from his new book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule (Metropolitan Books, 2008).
From the book The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule by Thomas Frank, Copyright © 2008 by Thomas Frank. Reprinted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an Imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved.