As Catholics called by our Church to active involvement in politics and government, issues of scandal and corruption in the public sector ought to be of concern to us. So let me, as I have done in the past on occasion, offer some of my own prudential judgments – not only about some current matters that seem to reek of political corruption, but also about the partisanship and ideological biases that too often protect those who should be held accountable for such corruption.
On the one hand, Republicans, it seems to me, have a legitimate grievance when they complain about the flagrant double standard in mainstream media’s aggressive treatment of the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal engulfing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, contrasted with their studied non-treatment of a range of scandals emanating from the Democratic administration in Washington:
- The “Fast and Furious” operation, in which federal authorities apparently ran guns to drug lords in Mexico, resulting in the murder of at least one U.S. Border Patrol agent, and no one knows how many innocent people in Mexico;
- Benghazi, and the administration’s confused and evidently deceptive response before, during and after what the president now acknowledges was an organized terrorist attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans;
- The deliberate targeting (acknowledged as such by Lois Lerner, the IRS official who first disclosed it) of conservative, pro-life and Christian organizations and individuals by the Internal Revenue Service, for discriminatory, harassing treatment that effectively disrupted their legitimate, First Amendment-protected public advocacy.
In each of these matters, mainstream media – when they have bothered to cover them at all – have portrayed Congressional investigations as partisan Republican witch hunts, while voicing no similar skepticism about the partisan motivations of the administration’s Democratic defenders in Congress. Indeed, media culpability in playing down the serious nature of these egregious matters only adds another layer of scandal to each of them.
That being said, there is also a double standard being employed by those Republican voices defending Chris Christie.
With some dismissing it as nothing more than “a traffic jam,” let’s be clear about what this was: a deliberately imposed, multi-day, massive traffic congestion that caused inconvenience, angst, and maybe a few jobs to people trying to get to work; discomfort to children riding buses to school, and worry to their parents; dangers to the health of those depending on emergency vehicles that got held up in this congestion. It was, in short, an unconscionable abuse of power, carried out by key appointees of Gov. Christie, that caused suffering to untold thousands of innocent people – all to exact political payback against a local government official who had refused to endorse Gov. Christie’s re-election.
Christie supporters are hanging their hats on his insistence that he knew nothing about what some of his top aides were up to. If he’s telling the truth, they say, he is in no way culpable.
Well, not so fast.
I don’t recall Republicans giving such benefit of the doubt to New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, when he likewise insisted he had no idea that key aides of his were misusing the state police to target his political enemy, State Senate leader Joe Bruno. They questioned – rightly, in my view – the competency of a governor who would not be aware of such behavior in his administration, and the integrity of a former state attorney general – who styled himself “the sheriff of Wall Street” – displaying zero investigative zeal in getting to the bottom of it.
Similarly with Chris Christie: If he truly did not know about this corruption while it was going on in his administration, that calls into question his competence. But beyond that, how is it that in the ensuing four months – from September, when the story broke, to January, when a state Assembly committee established that it was, in fact, a politically motivated act directed from inside his administration — this former federal prosecutor, who has cultivated an image as a tough, hands-on governor, could not have gotten to the bottom of it himself? Skeptics are entitled, it seems to me – as with Eliot Spitzer – to conclude that if he still didn’t know after all that time, it’s because he didn’t want to know.
Political corruption is a cancer in the body politic of a democracy. But it will not be rooted out until we the people demand that public officials, regardless of party – and our supposed media watchdogs, regardless of their political leanings – put aside their partisan interests and ideological biases and act as one to shine a light on corruption in government, and hold all perpetrators accountable.