By Jason Zweig | Dec. 14, 2016 9:00 am ET
Image credit: Thomas Cole, “The Course of Empire: Destruction” (1836), New-York Historical Society, via Wikimedia Commons
My dad, who was an editor-publisher of weekly newspapers, first in Ohio and then in Connecticut, ran this editorial exactly 65 years ago today.
It seems more relevant than ever. I post it here with a couple of historical annotations (entered as italics in the transcript below; in the last line, “Columbus” refers to the capital of Ohio) but without further comment.
Does Every Man Have His Price?
Irving J. Zweig
The Wellsville Press (Wellsville, Ohio), Dec. 14, 1951
During a very corrupt period in British history, a politician was able to say, cynically, “every man has his price.”
Today, as the headlines of corruption in high office meet the eye of the American citizen, he can well ask himself whether we in America have not sunk to such a lamentable level that graft or “squeeze” in high office is almost accepted as commonplace — to the point where “every man has his price.”
Those of us who feel that “a public office is a public trust” are growing fewer year by year. Gradually the feeling is growing that a certain amount of dishonesty in office is to be expected — that a fellow is foolish to turn down a little graft when it comes his way — that, after all, “if he doesn’t take it, the next fellow will.”
Such an attitude, if and when it becomes a national habit, will bring about the fall of the Republic.
Many are wondering what brought on this tide of “mink-coatism.” [Note: E. Merl Young, an official at the federal Reconstruction Finance Corp., bought his wife, Loretta, a $9,500 “pastel mink coat” (about $90,000 in today’s money). The payment came from a lawyer for Lustron Corp., a company for which Merl Young had arranged millions of dollars in U.S. government financing. Soon after, Merl Young left the RFC to work at Lustron — an early, glaring example of Washington’s revolving door.] Is it the fault of a weak and corrupt administration? Has one party been in power too long? Is it an aftermath of the war — big spending — big government — bureaucracy? Or are we in the midst of a nationwide moral decline?
We think there is some truth in all of these allegations. Certainly the administration could have been more careful in its selection of key officials. Certainly a party in power for so many years tends to “learn the ropes” a little too well. Certainly war and the huge sums of money expended on armaments tend to attract profiteers — unscrupulous men who are willing to tempt officials with money and favors in return for a valuable contract or contact.
But there is more to the problem. After all, the present administration will not always be in power nor will the war go on forever. If the problem were so simple it would evaporate as soon as the conditions which brought it on changed. But this does not appear to be true. Corruption in high office seems destined to remain with us regardless of party or situation. The situation is not a temporary one.
In a period of loose spending such as this, there is no simple and positive way to eliminate graft. Our government and its activities have grown so fast and become so complicated that “one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing.” Between the time when each of thousands upon thousands of contracts is let and sub-let until completed, any number of opportunities open for those who have their “hands out.” Only absolute integrity on the part of officials and contractors can ensure the honest execution and completion of the contract. This means that national honesty is as important to our government as victory in the cold war. As a matter of fact, we will eventually lose the war if we lose the battle of honesty.
How can you and I help to restore honesty in government?
We can do this by:
- a. Demanding those those officials who betrayed their country through corruption in office be made public examples. Let them be removed from office, be forever barred from holding office and otherwise published to the limit of the law.
- b. Let a similar penalty be meted out to private individuals and corporation officials who tempt or succeed in bribing a government official. Such an individual is as guilty as the government official concerned.
- c. Remove the present administration from power regardless of whether any or all of its key men are involved in the scandals. Let the wrath of the people be felt by those on the top so that they who follow will be more careful.
- d. Finally, underwrite a campaign to educate young and old all over the U.S. to the value of honesty in government and the absolute necessity for such honesty.
- e. Let each and every one of us promise that we will never make the statement in front of our children or friends that “all government officials are crooks.” This is not so. Most government officials are honest — at least as honest as the people who elected them. By lumping all officials together in the same barrel, we tend to keep good men from running for office and encourage the others to think, “I might as well have the name as bear the blame.”
Finally, we must return to a healthy respect and veneration of American history and heroes. The story of George Washington and the cherry tree is not half so naive and is twice as valuable as that type of history which is so eager to tell us that Washington had false teeth. Who cares whether the “Father of Our Country” had false teeth? His life and his deeds are above personal characteristics. They are an inspiration for all of mankind.
In this age of sophisticated piffle, radio twaddle and popular cynicism, the old virtues have become “old-fashioned.” And as the old virtues became dated, it was not long before virtue itself tended to become dated and considered a popular joke [as] personal and official honesty became a source of radio and popular gags. Do you wonder that some of our officials feel that honesty in government is a joke — practiced only by fools?
An official is as honest as he learned to be in his living room, over his radio, in the comic books, among his friends, in his church, in his school, in his work. That’s why every one of us and all our institutions are responsible for the “five-percenters.” [Note: Various officials in the Truman administration had been accused of seeking to take a 5% cut of any government contracts they were able to arrange for corporations.]
Until this is recognized and dealt with, it will do no good to punish offenders. They will grow up like weeds and overgrow the fruit of our history. Eventually they will succeed in breaking public confidence in our government and destroying our free institutions.
The government is you and I and all the neighbors. Our honesty today is reflected in Columbus and Washington tomorrow.