Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Politics As Usual?

As the story on Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich drags on with his continued refusal to resign, some are questioning whether what he did was little more than politics as usual but just simply more blatant.

Just the connotation of the word ‘politician’ brings negative thoughts to most of us. Someone who is said to have gotten their position ‘through politics’ is assumed to have benefited more from connections and favors than skill and hard work. And while there are undoubtedly both good and bad politicians, many of us fear the worst when deals are made out of sight of the public. So when we read transcripts of wiretapped Blagojevich conversations of him blatantly shaking down people for money we were shocked. Not necessarily that the shakedown took place but that it was so blatantly discussed over the phone (even when he knew he was under investigation) instead of just being cleverly implied.

The total fear of not being caught along with the total lack of any contrition after being arrested in the face of such damning evidence have led some to speculate that there may well be some mental health issues here.
This NYT reader opined:

Obviously Gov. Blagovebich (sic) is mentally ill…probably with bi-polar disorder. As a mental health professional who worked for 35 years with many of these difficult and unfortunate, people, I can say that he exhibits classic symptoms! He is being joked about as a nasty sociopath, but his delusional, paranoid, grandiose ramblings are way beyond that!

Dick Cavett who is not a mental health professional but has written a number of excellent articles based on his own battles with depression offers these thoughts:

Is humor out of place on this subject? Probably. In Blagojevich, we are dealing with a sick man. Or, in medical terminology, extreme pathology.

I felt the need to get some expert opinion on just what the ethically challenged governor is a case of. I sought the counsel of the eminent Dr. Willard Gaylin, longtime practitioner and author on such matters — once entrusted with the care and feeding of my own tender psyche. He filled me in.

He described what would now be called a “sociopath,” a modern-day term for the older “psychopath.” It’s a complex, hard-to-treat ailment, and “anti-social” is the key phrase here.

Among the prominent traits of one so afflicted is the absence of any sense of guilt or shame. Empathy is unknown. The truth may be told, but only when it serves the often bizarre purposes of the teller. Never for its own sake.

The governor’s astonishing dare — Go ahead and tap my phones — brings to mind the much more normal Gary Hart’s “Follow me.” (They did.) It is explained by the sociopath’s absolute conviction that he is somehow immune from being caught.
Obviously, trying to perform a long distance diagnosis of someone we do not even know should not be taken as an authoritative word on a person’s condition. But while this man certainly needs to be brought to trial for these accusations, there are enough red flags that we can hope that the authorities will include a psychological examination as part of his trial process.

But getting back to politics as usual, our laws have a number of examples where the line between ethical and unethical behavior can be more than a bit blurry.

For example, while asking for money in return for a political favor is clearly illegal, offering a favor in return for another a.k.a.
quid pro quo is usually OK as it is a generally accepted part of the political process.

While giving money to a politician for his own personal use is bribery and is illegal, giving money to that same politician’s campaign is OK as long as it conforms to election laws. Corporations put countless millions into campaign contributions and lobbying politicians to get a sympathetic ear. Some of those politicians like
Billy Tauzin retired from Congress to get a lucrative job lobbying for the industry he once oversaw while in Congress.

Cushy ambassador’s jobs to countries that many of us would pay to vacation in are given out to the largest contributors to presidential campaigns. Is this bribery? The explanation given is that the politician is just choosing people he knows who can do the job well. But how much of a chance would the same person have at that job without the political contribution?

Even in the private sector, a salesman who pays his customer to buy his products is again committing bribery. But entertaining customers with meals and tickets to sporting events is considered a normal part of business that taxpayers help to subsidize since these expenses are at least partly tax deductible. Now while the customer can still buy from whomever he wants to, how many want to give up all of those goodies for the sake of principle?

I’m sure there are other examples but I think this makes the point. While we should certainly be outraged at the behavior of Governor Blagojevich it would be hypocritical for us to turn a blind eye toward the other behaviors that may well be legal under present laws but whose ethics are questionable. Congress has indeed made some progress on
ethics reform in lobbying but there is still a long way to go.

And since it is widely believed that especially larger political contributors normally expect something in return from their candidates, perhaps it is finally time to seriously push for
public financing of political campaigns. But Barack Obama’s bypassing of public financing for his presidential campaign may have killed that idea. When reneging on his promise to accept public financing, he wrote, "I am firmly committed to reforming the system as president, so that it's viable in today's campaign climate." It will be interesting to see if or how he follows through on this especially having to work with a Republican Party that on this issue would be understandably cynical.

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