Political corruption in New York state and New York City are nothing new, but it seems to be undergoing a phase shift. Lately, we barely get wind of one mare’s nest of venality before a new outrage splashes across the front pages. Two days ago brought us a Democratic senator and his NY city council henchman bribing folks far and near to get the senator on the — huh? — Republican ticket for mayor of NYC, and right on the heels of this story, another state senator is accused of accepting $22,000 in bribes to allow someone to open a daycare center in his district, while preventing anyone else from opening another center for three more years.
These scandals are hardly noteworthy, given the kubuki theater that is New York politics, where senators and councilmen and other public servants file in and out of the courts and prisons with admirable regularity, yet the sudden increase in frequency seems to demand an answer to the question of the hour: when do even New York voters finally say they’ve had enough? When do we start to think that these are not isolated incidents in a largely honest and reliable government? At what point do we begin to suspect that the few cockroaches we catch are but a tiny fraction of the thousands hiding behind the wall?
First of all, voters would probably be more upset if they had some notion of what state senators and city council people do. Whatever it is, it is not obvious. Presumably the senators, who are “part-time”, are responsible for passing legislation relating to taxation, budgets and other weighty matters, but little of this filters out to the electorate, perhaps because political reporters are too busy covering trials and investigations to pay much attention to mundane matters like these, or perhaps because a series of strong governors have had their own way for so long where actual governing is concerned that the legislators would start in surprise if actually consulted by the executive branch. In any event, it seems clear they are far too deeply engaged in looting the public purse to pay much attention to actual public business. Ditto the city council, whose roster of mountebanks and charlatans is unrivaled domestically or internationally, save possibly Italy, which has been at it far longer, or Chicago, where all the dead are registered Democrats.
Or maybe we know what we’re doing, we voters. God help us if those who hold public office actually tried to govern us, we think. We see what mischief they get up to already; maybe we silently beg them to go about their petty thievery and back-alley hustling, squabbling over pitifully small bags of boodle (compared to the really big-time swindles their private-sector paymasters operate). “Never mind us,” we implore them, lest we wind up with even more law than we already have, which, to many minds, is already far too abundant.
It should gall us that those who hold the public trust and profess responsibility should be so very dishonest and without conscience. We may be inured to this behavior from commercial chieftains, who make no pretense to community responsibility, but shouldn’t we expect better from those who have promised us to be trustworthy stewards of the state? Think carefully. Look what happens when incorruptible politicians gain power. All manner of nanny-state mayhem begins to break out, and no soda is safe.
We have ample lessons from recent history and antiquity of the results of reform. Suddenly newly-formed legislatures fill with earnest people demanding a bewildering array of civic revisions, throwing things into a turmoil that will not settle until the zealotry and energy of the right-minded are finally and inevitably dulled by the lust for power that dooms all revolutions to failure, and corruption creeps back into the res publica both in fiscal and despotic deformities.
Frankly, the only thing more odious than what we already have in New York is what we could get if we’re not careful. The progress of organized crime in New York City might serve as a good example. Each time the police managed to cripple whatever group controlled the underworld economy — starting with the Italian mafia — they left a vacuum which quickly filled with an even more savage and brutal bunch of thugs, finally arriving at today’s mix, whose enthusiasm for murder and flair for colorful vengeance beggars anything contemplated by those comparatively meek and civilized Dons. If we clear all the current crop of scoundrels out of the cloakrooms of the Senate and the City Council, we might well find a new scourge of civil servants that make their predecessors look like guardian angels — or worse still, we might really get a group of guardian angels, whose unflinching self-righteousness and devotion to improving the populace threatens us with an even more invasive and dismaying thuggery, albeit of a different tenor.
Isn’t there a compromise? Can’t we expect, at the very least, to have a reasonable number of honest, hard-working people in our city and state government? In fact, we may already have this, in a strange way, in that there may be many folks on the take who also devote a fair amount of their time to the public welfare, in the time-honored tradition of Tammany Hall, Huey Long, Jim Curley and many other noted American institutions, who knew that a healthy host was in the best interests of the parasitical classes. Charlie Rangel, who gamed the system as well as anyone, probably did as much for his constituents as he could, given the world he lived in, and is still held in high enough regard to keep his seat in Washington.
Besides, even when the reformers think they’ve got it right, it all seems to end in tears. Eliot Spitzer, crusading state attorney general, is elected governor, but Sir Galahad is revealed as “Client Number Six” of a $5000-a-night hooker. Anthony Wiener, fire-breathing champion of the oppressed, turns out to be less obsessed with the plight of the underdog than sexting photos of his own underwear. “Put not thy trust in princes,” counseled Machiavelli. Wise words then; wiser still now.