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Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics
by Suzanne Garment
Random House, 335 pages, $23

At the end of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the narrator Nick Carraway sums up the inner lives of the rich and self-absorbed Tom and Daisy Buchanan and their indifference to the pain and death they inflict upon Gatsby by commenting: “It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made . . . .” Similarly, Suzanne Garment’s profound new book, Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics, surveys the political equivalent of Fitzgerald’s amoral high society—the permanent scandal machine comprised of the media, congressional staffers, prosecutors, interest group dirt-diggers, independent counsels—and finds it no less contemptible or indifferent to the suffering of people and institutions than Tom and Daisy Buchanan were to Jay Gatsby.

Garment’s empirically supported contention is that the permanent scandal machine’s attack on corruption and unethical behavior in government and politics is more damaging to the moral climate of American politics than the corruption it seeks to eliminate. The focus on scandal diverts attention from real problems (the Keating Five instead of the careless deregulation of the savings and loan industry, for example) and generates mistrust of government, thereby undermining our belief in the efficacy of change through elected government. Reforms to “clean up” politics spawn an interlocking array of investigatory organizations with little oversight and a tremendous incentive to turn even the slightest appearance of impropriety into a multi-million dollar, media-fed search for wrongdoing. That Hollywood is going to make a movie of “the October surprise” (the almost universally discredited allegation that the Reagan campaign paid off Iran to delay the release of the hostages) is an appropriate apostrophe to this phenomenon.

The permanent scandal machine has its roots in the reform movement that emerged after the Civil War in response to the rise of urban political machines that organized the growing number of immigrants into a potent political force. Comprised of old-line Protestant politicians, the media, and elites of business and academe, the manifest purpose of the reform movement was to eradicate corruption and take “politics out of government.”

Throughout much of the twentieth century such reforms had the effect of making government more efficient but less accountable to the public. They spawned inaccessible bureaucracies and recalcitrant public employee unions—new machines—whose corruption and inefficiency is no less pervasive or notorious than that under Jimmy Walker or other urban bosses. Reform created a procedurally pure political process that has become increasingly unable to respond with dispatch to publicly defined problems. Largely free of electoral constraints, the new machine operated according to its inner lights, not the will of the people. In the process, what James Q. Wilson calls the more direct democracy of the marketplace was replaced with bureaucratic management of policy-generated constituencies and their complaints.

At a national level, reform efforts—confronted with the civil rights conflict, the assassinations of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, and America’s demise in Vietnam—developed a “mistrustful attitude towards political lift in general.” As Garment notes, deceit, corruption, and abuse of power were regarded as the central cause of the nation’s difficulties. Watergate ultimately justified this perception and unleashed a widespread attack not only on illegal actions, but offensive behavior and sleazy politics as well. Within an expanding universe of impropriety, even the appearance of scandal became “notorious, morally significant, and exciting.”

It is in this environment that the permanent scandal machine brought itself into being. The media transformed themselves into full-time investigative enterprises, searching far and wide for any action or behavior that could possibly snowball into Watergate-level scandal. Congress imploded, destroying seniority, creating dozens of new subcommittees, adding thousands of new staffers, all with a mission to root out malfeasance. New “watch-dog” interest groups found that helping staffers dig up dirt and generate scandals increased their influence in policy-making. Federal agencies and Congress itself, seeking to insulate themselves from attack, set up independent inspectors general and ethics offices to expand the universe of impermissible actions, making even the appearance of impropriety a crime. Finally, independent counsels and federal prosecutors initiated an open-ended siring of indictments and trials (all given full play in the media) of people unlucky enough to get caught in the cogs of the scandal machine.

What is so striking about Garment’s account is how insignificant most of these scandals were and are. In fact. Garment asks, can you remember the particulars of Lancegate, Koreagate, Billygate, or Abscam? Can anyone remember why Hamilton Jordan, Ray Donovan, Richard Allen, Jim Wright, or Tony Coehlo were forced to resign their positions? Can anyone even remember who most of these people were? Or more currently, who but scandalmongers know what B.C.C.I. stands for or why it is important to investigate Allan Hubbard, the executive director of the President’s Council on Competitiveness? In each case, as with others Garment discusses—Abscam being the exception—not one “scandal” involved criminal behavior or the use of public office for personal enrichment. (In the Abscam case, federal agents had to trap garden-variety congressmen into accepting small bribes.) Most Americans likely have a better recall of the behavior of congressmen and presidential candidates involved in sex “scandals” because the titillation factor is higher. In general Garment notes that most of the scandals aren’t really scandals at all: they are attacks on actions or behavior that the scandal machine has defined as either unethical or (it now means the same thing) having the appearance of impropriety.

Nor—with the sole exception of Watergate—have these scandals or revelations deeply affected policymaking and its outcomes. Dealing with “scandals” of more recent memory, particularly Iran/Contra and the Keating Five, Garment suggests that by focusing on malfeasance, the scandal machine ignored the real issues of which scandal was a small part. In Iran/Contra, the millions Congress and independent counsel Lawrence Walsh spent to have Oliver North, John Poindexter, and others convicted on essentially misdemeanor charges had little impact on the source of the arms-for-hostages deal: the ambivalent U.S. policy towards Nicaragua and Reagan’s desire to get the hostages out of Iran. Similarly, the Senate Ethics Committee’s investigation of the Keating Five has almost nothing to do with the consequences of the government’s careless deregulation of the savings and loan industry that precipitated the $500 billion bailout. As Garment notes, “We have built ourselves a system that knows how to create a public outcry over even the appearance of an appearance of a conflict of interest but could not get itself interested in the policy sins that underlay our savings and loan crisis . . . “

Much like the reformers of yesteryear, the constituent elements of the scandal machine claim that their crusade for a politics of virtue and good motives is intended to strengthen public trust in government. How is it, then, that the focus on “scandals of intention, moral failings, and criminal liability” has “made our government worse, not better”? Why has public trust in government declined despite twenty years of steady machine activity?

The answer is that the scandal machine is less accountable than the politicians and government officials that are the focus of its wrath. Much like the bureaucracies and agencies created by the reforms of yesteryear, the scandal machine is permanent precisely because its members are responsible only to themselves and their narrow agendas. What is so striking about the explosive growth in use of independent counsels, the so-called “watchdog” interest groups, congressional staff, investigative reporters, inspectors general, and federal prosecutors is the fact that not one of these offices or interests is elected or in any way accountable to the American people. To stay in business, as it were, they have to serve their own self-interest—rather than engage in coalition building and the compromise of personal goals as do elected officials. The business of the scandal machine is to rack up a high body count as a measure of effectiveness. Further, the focus on the misuse of power is driven by the fact that policy constituencies could and still do obtain rewards (money, contracts, jobs) and influence by controlling both the scope and manner in which government agencies administer specific programs. Hence, scandal-mongering also has the effect of diverting power to interest groups, which in turn widens the gap between public choices and policy outcomes. As Garment points out, the “steep rise in public alienation is fed by incessant scandal, and our mistrust has created political habits and institutions whose workings are almost sure to produce more scandal.”

Unchecked, the permanent scandal machine becomes insensitive to the impact of its actions on American politics in general and on the people who are ground up by its unyielding search for corruption. Without standards or accountability, all organizations tend towards amorality, because ultimately, absent any values or responsibility, the ends must justify the means. It is a far cry from Thomas Jefferson’s belief that America would be regarded as “the world’s best hope” for democracy by virtue of “every citizen meet[ing] the invasion of the public order as his own personal concern.”

The public support for Clarence Thomas’ nomination in the end reflected the people’s determination to cut through the ideological haze and to insure that certain standards of due process (such as requiring the accuser to prove misconduct) would be upheld, particularly when these standards apply to an institution precisely empowered to uphold constitutional rights. It was a defeat for the scandal machine and a brief restoration of the public’s direct link to its government. That the one tends to undermine the other is Suzanne Garment’s chief concern. We can only hope that her excellent articulation of this dilemma will be an important resource for its correction in the future.

Robert Goldberg is a new contributor to First Things.