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Something’s rotten in the neighborhood of Roxbury. And the city of Detroit. And the state of Alaska. Corruption charges and convictions have rocked America’s political headlines in the past week, potentially proving that power corrupts regardless of the role or the party affiliation of the figure involved.
But this recent wave of scandals should serve something more than another case for disillusionment. Instead, we should view it as a harsh but ultimately serendipitous reminder of the moral fallibility of political leaders we can sometimes come to idolize, and the importance of maintaining an informed, moderate political attitude after the ballots are counted next week.
First off is the case of Massachusetts State Senator Dianne Wilkerson, accused of accepting more than $23,000 dollars in bribes in return for political favors over the last 18 months. Wilkerson, the Boston Globe suggests, was once a “rising star” of state politics, damned by a series of apparent ethics violations leading up to the present charges.
It remains to be seen whether Wilkerson’s narrative will end where former Detroit Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick’s hubris-fueled collapse did: in the penitentiary. Last month, Kilpatrick pleaded guilty to eight felony charges of obstruction of justice after his lackadaisical attempt to snuff out rumors of the extramarital affair he was carrying on over thousands of SMS messages with his chief of staff. Kilpatrick’s cover-up looked like something out of the Huey Long playbook: intimidating and firing police officers, lying under oath and all the while using his privileged position to ridicule the (bulletproof) case against him.
Yesterday, he went to jail for four months—but not before Judge David Groner publicly dressed him down, noting that in the aftermath of the scandal’s revelation, the wounded city of Detroit “expected to hear a message of humility, remorse and apology. Instead, we heard an arrogant and defiant man who accused the governor, among others, for his downfall.” (Kilpatrick had denied the allegations and likened the media furor around him to a lynch mob.)
Kilpatrick’s self-obsessed indignation shouldn’t be surprising: Political leaders who have slipped so far from an ethic of responsibility to their cause and constituents can rarely reclaim the veneer that once made them seem so admirable.
Consider also the case of veteran Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens, found guilty on Monday of federal ethics violations for accepting unreported thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts, including a home renovation. Once the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the President pro tempore, Stevens had become over the years one of the most influential men in the Congress.
For his part, Stevens couldn’t look more defiant: He insisted after his conviciton he will continue his uphill battle for the Senate seat he has held since 1970, after he helped lead Alaska to statehood. This history, combined with his legendary ability to steer federal money his state’s way, makes it no wonder why Stevens, like Kilpatrick, was so revered at home, at least by certain voting blocs. (Governor Sarah Palin, an on-and-off political ally of Sen. Stevens’s, took her time to call outright for his resignation; at first she asked murkily that he “do what’s right for the people of Alaska.”)
What we take away from these instances of classically tragic political downfalls should not be that our government is necessarily the corrosive cesspool that Senator John McCain and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have both tried to conjure for partisan ends. If we are to be disheartened, let it be because of the tendency in government to look after one’s own, and to ultimately spare offenders any meaningful repercussions.
While the public waits patiently for Sen. Stevens’ sentencing, let us attempt to counterbalance that unfortunate self-interest of the political establishment with a renewed vigilance as voters. Emotional investment in a candidacy is fine during campaign season, though it never hurts to shore that passion up with a little policy.
The tide of our politics may turn on Election Day—and, judging by the polls, most Americans would consider it a happy development. What becomes absolutely essential then, as these scandals have demonstrated, is to avoid at all costs slipping into the self-satisfied unreason of most avid supporters of Kilpatrick, or Stevens (or Bush). Instead, we should take whichever president we elect at his word, and be the active, thoughtful, and occasionally critical citizens we’ve been called to be.
James M. Larkin ’10, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Quincy House.
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