Personalized Government Service
February 27, 2001
friend recently called to discuss the scandal of the community of
Hasidic Jews in Rockland County, New York, who voted overwhelmingly for
Hillary Clinton for senator in return for the assurance that her husband
would pardon four of their members, who had been convicted of defrauding
the federal government. Meanwhile, neighboring Hasidic communities
voted overwhelmingly for her Republican opponent.
In general, my friend explained, the
scrupulously Orthodox, quaintly dressed Hasidic Jews are very
conservative. But they are also apolitical and rather naive about politics.
When the Clintons offered them a shady deal, they didnt ask
whether it was strictly proper. They just figured that this selling
favors for votes is what politicians do, and they took it. They kept
up their end of the bargain by voting for Hillary, thereby showing a certain
sense of honor.
The flip side is that the Clintons kept
up their end too. The pardons were delivered. If they had broken their
word, there was nothing the Hasidim could have done about it. So the
Clintons deserve credit for a certain subterranean honor too. As the old
joke has it, an honest politician is one who, when bought, stays bought.
Throughout the pardon uproar, I have
been struck by the fact that Bill Clinton, even in disgracing himself with
the public, was keeping his word to his friends, kinfolk, and benefactors.
He may have violated the public trust not for the first time
but he was true to certain private loyalties.
Like the Hasidic Jews, Clinton seems
to have felt that this is what politicians do. They cut deals and swap
favors. Politics is a marketplace of power, power that is for sale or rent.
That has been Clintons life.
At the end of his presidency there
was nothing to prevent him from reneging on his pardon bargains. It would
have surprised nobody if he had forgotten the obligations he had incurred.
What is surprising is that he didnt. He kept faith. Who says there is
no honor among thieves? For whatever reason, he ended his days in
politics by maintaining his political credit rating.
Clintons pardons caused
scandal because the public is shocked more by little crimes than by big
ones. A politician who bribes huge blocs of voters by promising them
billions of dollars of other peoples money (in increased Social
Security benefits, for example) is considered honest. But if he takes a
bribe from an individual, he is considered a crook even if he is
being paid to do what he might or should have done anyway (pardoning a
man who received an unduly heavy prison sentence, for example).
Bribery can cut a lot of red tape. Sometimes a bribe is the only
way a citizen can get his moneys worth from an otherwise
rapacious and inert government. Most of us work several months a year for
the government and get nothing in return. But a well-placed bribe can save
you waiting in line and guarantee personalized service. If you dont
belong to a big, powerful, and well-organized voting bloc, it may be the
only way to induce the government to pay attention to you. Of course it
depends on whether the public servant you approach can be relied on to
Bill Clinton understands this. And, let
it be said, he delivered. Hundreds of Americans can attest that his word is
his bond. Those who disparage his character, not without reason, should at
least take this fact into account before they condemn him. If the
devils did not keep faith with one another, a wise man has written,
hell could not subsist.
We censure the microbribe even as we
accept the macrobribe. We express dismay at the anecdotal impropriety
that is not essentially different from, and is far less harmful than, the
mass marketing of government favors. When we discover that the sale of
political favors has been transacted between individuals, rather than
among large masses of voters, we bewail the collapse of public morality.
But Clinton perceived that there is no real distinction except one of scale.
If he could do the one, why not the other?
Perhaps someday this larcenous
government will issue a general amnesty to taxpayers who have resisted
being fleeced. But until then, the individual must buy justice where he can.
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