No Room for Mistakes

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Even a saint wouldn’t survive today’s 24-hour news cycle

by Alan Chartock

Why would anyone in their right mind run for political office? The way I figure it, you have got to be nuts to want to be a congressman, state legislator or mayor in this tabloidridden, 24-hour, “gotcha” news environment. Let’s face it: The hypocrisy of the people going after our politicians is extraordinary.

It seems to me that even a saint couldn’t make it. Just ask yourself, “Is there anything I may have done at any point in my life that I wouldn’t want to see blown out of proportion?” Did you smoke pot? Did you have premarital sex with a woman or man who may have turned out to be a bit of a stalker? Did a bunch of frat brothers talk you into visiting a house of ill repute? Did your wife, husband or children ever do something you wouldn’t want to read about in a newspaper? Have you hired someone to clean your house who may not have been a citizen?

In the old days, a Roosevelt or an Eisenhower or a Kennedy could find some solace with a love interest and the word was out: “Stand clear, we don’t get involved in people’s personal lives.” Then everything changed. Make a mistake now and you might as well be sitting on a bundle of dynamite. It’s particularly extraordinary that, even with all of this scrutiny, there are politicians who do things that are so stupid they should have their heads examined. Some of them sell their offices to the highest bidder. Some have work done on their homes by contractors in return for favors from the office holder. Some put no-show people on their payrolls. Some do absolutely nothing wrong but are screwed to the wall by a press that doesn’t mind destroying a good human being.

It is those who actually do break the rules that I hold in contempt. There is a great deal
of power in these offices. One contract can mean millions of dollars to a business supplicant. The politicians who break the rules are masters of rationalization— they believe that they are so important that the money they can bring in is owed to them by a public that should be grateful. They ask how they can be expected to live on the paltry salary that they are paid. They have to raise hundreds of thousands—sometimes millions—of dollars to even run for an office that pays a small fraction of what they have raised. If there are any among us who haven’t read Faust, The Devil and Daniel Webster or Damn Yankees, I suggest you do so to understand how these unfortunate but greedy souls tick. Sooner or later, they have to pay the piper.

We’ve seen all kinds of schemes. Some of these people set up not-for-profit organizations and install their families and friends as officers. Some get jobs for their children and then guarantee them government business. I suspect they do stupid things because they have
always gotten away with them. When they finally get caught for seriously going over the line, they are amazed.

It is illegal to enter into a contract, verbal or written, that says, “If you do this for me, I will deliver because of my government position.” You mean to tell me they don’t know that eventually, someone will throw them under the bus to a district attorney to get off the hook? We all see them hauled away in handcuffs, yet others go ahead and do the same thing, as if they are immune.

It is a pinball game. Sooner or later, you either lose or you bang the machine so hard it goes “tilt.” Like I said, you’d have to be out of your mind to play that game.
Alan S. Chartock is president and
CEO of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio
and an executive publisher at The
Legislative Gazette.

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