woody zimmerman 118 2007Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”(Benjamin Franklin)

Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people. The general government . . . can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an oligarchy, an aristocracy, or any despotic or oppressive form so long as there is any virtue in the body of the people.” (George Washington)

These old quotations, which seem almost quaint now, are not heard much anymore. It’s entirely understandable why not: as a nation, we’re in a crisis of virtue. By this, I don’t mean pilfering the office coffee supplies, exceeding speed limits or sneaking out without paying restaurant tabs. No, it’s more fundamental – and far more serious – than any of that. What I’m talking about is the phenomenon of significant public support for corruption at high levels of political leadership.

This is the result of a long, slow evolution of American political thought and attitudes. A once fiercely independent American determination to be self-sufficient and free of government’s control has morphed into a helpless posture in a sizable electoral faction. That faction seems more and more willing to countenance illegal actions by government in order to keep the milk and honey flowing. So large and powerful has this bloc grown that it can now elect representatives, senators and even presidents who are aligned with their wants. Barack Obama is the first president elected entirely on his promise to enact “fundamental change” that will serve those who desire (and expect) financial assistance from government.

The electorate, however, is not of one mind on this new governmental role of “provider.” Accordingly, a faction has arisen to elect enough representatives to form a strong bloc opposing Mr. Obama’s policies. This has frustrated him and his supporters, and impelled him to use other means for advancing his program. In some cases he has issued executive orders to accomplish actions that he could never achieve legislatively. In other instances he has selectively enforced parts of certain laws, changed provisions of some laws unilaterally, or has simply declined to enforce other laws altogether. His attorney general has been going round the country encouraging state attorneys general to act similarly toward certain state laws. The Constitution makes no provision for these actions – meaning that the president’s conduct is illegal. Although opposition members of Congress have “deplored” and “denounced,” no substantial response has been mounted to contest the president’s actions. He is rampant on the political field, with no effective opposition in sight. Whether the voters can remedy this remains to be seen.

The salient difference between now and earlier times is that a significant political faction now supports the president’s illegal actions, whereas past presidents generally lacked such support when such situations arose. Fresh from a resounding re-election victory in 1937 – but frustrated by a Supreme Court that had struck down several of his pet social programs – Franklin Roosevelt proposed to “pack the court” with additional justices. For every sitting justice over age 70 who refused to resign, FDR wanted to appoint an additional justice. This would have added as many as six new justices – thereby creating a new majority to ensure that his programs could pass judicial muster.

Although heavily Democrat, the Congress showed no enthusiasm for FDR’s radical idea. The Constitution did not prohibit FDR’s proposal, but politicians of both parties were uncomfortable with it and would not support it. It fell flat, and FDR had to remain within the bounds of the Constitution and public opinion. As it turned out, FDR eventually replaced eight of the nine justices of the 1937 court via the standard procedure of filling vacancies that developed over his last eight years in office.

In 1972 President Richard Nixon countenanced a burglary of Democratic National headquarters at the Watergate building, and then publicly lied to cover up the deed. The subsequent exposure of both the burglary and the lies caused him to lose support not only from Democrats but from the ranks of his own party. Lacking the political support to fight impeachment proceedings in the Congress, Mr. Nixon chose to resign. Attitudes in Congress actually mirrored the general temper of the public, as much of the country was furious at Mr. Nixon for lying to them. (Some historians believe he could have remained in office, had he simply made a clean breast of things and apologized to the public and to his political opponents.)

But (as the old song goes), “the times, they are a-changing.” Only 25 years later, in 1998, the disclosure of President Bill Clinton’s sexual involvement with White House intern Monica Lewinsky caused a huge scandal – exacerbated when Mr. Clinton publicly lied about the affair. First Lady Hillary Clinton blamed the scandal on a “huge right-wing conspiracy,” and the Clintons’ political allies stayed solidly in their corner as Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr continued his investigation and made many disclosures.

Toward the end of 1998 the Republican-controlled House of Representatives brought impeachment charges against Mr. Clinton that included counts of perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from a trial dealing with Mr. Clinton’s sexual harassment of an Arkansas state employee named Paula Jones, while Mr. Clinton was governor. Both charges were quite clear-cut and very serious. (The obstruction of justice charge involved jury-tampering in the Paula Jones trial.)

Any ordinary person would have gone to prison for either charge, but Mr. Clinton was not an “ordinary person.” His partisan supporters remained steadfast, unlike when members of Mr. Nixon’s own party turned against him. Despite the seriousness of the charges, not a single Democratic senator voted to convict Mr. Clinton on either count. On the jury-tampering charge, the vote was 55-45 to convict – strictly along party lines. Since a 2/3-vote was needed for conviction, Mr. Clinton beat the rap. On the perjury charge, five Republicans voted against conviction, producing a vote of 50-50.

Throughout the Clinton impeachment proceedings, the president’s defenders managed to confuse the public – and probably some of the Congress – by claiming that the president was being persecuted for a sexual affair which, while distasteful, did not rise to the Constitutional standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Of course, the charges were far more serious than that, but the Lewinsky affair did serve as an effective diversion that muddied the waters just enough to let the president remain in office.

After Mr. Clinton’s presidential term ended, Arkansas state courts punished him for his conduct in the Jones case by stripping him of his law license for a period of five years. Partisan mainstream media barely took notice, however. Not only was Mr. Clinton not disgraced – in the way Mr. Nixon was – but today he is lionized as Democrats’ great hero and esteemed “elder statesman.” His support has grown, not declined. I believe this demonstrated political solidarity behind Mr. Clinton – despite his grossly illegal conduct – has encouraged President Obama to take various illegal actions, which certainly look like impeachable offenses, in the full confidence that he can get away with anything that he can frame as an “us against them” political issue. So far, his estimate in this regard has been entirely vindicated.

One of the hallmarks of a “virtuous” people is its unwillingness, regardless of political faction, to countenance illegality – or even conduct that is merely questionable – in its leaders. Members of FDR’s own party would not support his court-packing plan, and Republican senators urged Richard Nixon to resign “for the good of the country.” Both of these episodes demonstrated a bi-partisan impulse toward virtue that isn’t much in evidence now. It won’t return as long as one faction or another craves certain government largess so much that it will accept illegality in its leaders to keep the gravy train rolling.

If you want a definition of corruption, this is it. It’s a true crisis for the republic, and should be a fire-bell in the night for every citizen. A few more years of it, and we won’t recognize the country.