One of the defining political themes of our present epoch is the ongoing and intensifying clash between the people of the country and those whom they’ve elected to lead them, that which the inimitable Angelo Codevilla has called the “Country Class vs. the Ruling Class.” The perennial fight between the Republican “establishment” and the Tea Party is, of course, the most spectacular and best known distillation of this clash, but it is not the only one. On a whole host of issues, Washington and most of the rest of the country are at odds, a condition exacerbated by the fact that the inside-the-Beltway crowd seems not to care what the “ill-informed” masses believe.
It hasn’t always been like this, of course. Once upon a time, this country’s elected representatives in Washington actually believed that they had been elected to represent the interests of the people, rather than their own interests or even the interests of their party. But that was a long time ago, and over the years, Washington has, by and large, become a playground for those bent on advancing their own agendas or protecting their partisan privileges at all cost. Sadly, this past week, we were all provided a rather vivid reminder of just how complete and utter this dissociation between the rulers and the ruled has become.
This past Thursday (June 26), Howard Baker passed away at his home in Huntsville, Tennessee. Baker, you may recall, was a Republican Senator, a presidential candidate, the Senate Majority Leader, the White House Chief of Staff (under President Reagan), and the United States Ambassador to Japan. More than anything, though, Baker is best remembered as the Republican who finally had enough of the corruption endemic in the Nixon administration and famously asked, “What did the President know, and when did he know it.” Baker’s query is widely considered to be a watershed in the Watergate saga. It was the moment when everyone in Washington understood that the need to purge the White House of its corruption was no longer a partisan one.
Twenty-four years after Baker’s memorable display of non-partisan patriotism, another American president found himself under investigation for personal corruption. Only this time, the reaction was slightly different. In the case of Bill Clinton’s perjury and obstruction of justice, the partisan break was notable, but woefully incomplete. The late, great Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D, NY) made a stand against the corruption in the White House, but failed to follow through with his critique. Like many of his fellow Democrats, Moynihan declared the President’s personal behavior reprehensible. But he went even further, advocating the impeachment process, stating that perjury should be grounds for impeachment, and decrying the effect that Clinton’s dishonesty had had on the political environment. “We have a crisis of the regime,” Moynihan declared. “You cannot have this kind of conduct as normal and acceptable and easily dismissed…What we have before us, and we ought to get on with it, is an impeachment procedure.”
When the time came to back up his words with action, though, Moynihan folded, voting against convicting Clinton and thus preserving the partisan lines in the Senate. And so unlike Nixon, Clinton served the remainder of his term.
Today, of course, we have another White House in trouble and another instance of wanton and incontrovertible corruption in the executive branch. As you undoubtedly know, the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative nonprofit groups in the run-up to the 2012 election. Over the past couple of weeks, we have learned that the emails of the woman in charge of the IRS Exempt Organizations Unit, Lois Lerner, were “lost” when her hard drive crashed. We learned as well that the backup tapes of her emails were recycled; that the hard drives and emails of six other IRS employees under investigation were similarly corrupted; that Ms. Lerner called for an investigation targeting a Republican Senator (Chuck Grassley of Iowa); that the IRS Commissioner, John Koskinen, deceived the House when he said he was looking into finding Lerner’s emails even after he had been informed that they were destroyed; and that Mr. Koskinen is a longtime Democratic activist and donor.
When confronted by all of this, how did the Democrats in the House respond? Did they berate Mr. Koskinen as he appeared before them in various committee hearings? Did they declare that the IRS was a disaster that should be thoroughly repudiated by its overseers? Did they demand that Mr. Koskinen take affirmative steps to reform this most corrupt and most powerful of all bureaucratic agencies? Not even close.
Instead, they apologized to Koskinen for putting him through the trauma of having to testify. They thanked him for his service to the country. They praised him for doing the bare minimum required of him. In short, they held their partisan ground as fiercely as they could.
All of which brings us full circle, for also this past week, we saw the passing of Johnnie M. Walters. Mr. Walters, like Mr. Koskinen, served as the head of the IRS. Unlike Koskinen, though, Walters refused to be a party to the abuse of executive power in pursuit of political ends. In 1973, he famously resigned his post as Commissioner rather than allow his IRS to be used to investigate Nixon’s “enemies list.”
If there were more men and women like Mr. Johnnie Walters and Senator Howard Baker in Washington today, perhaps the Tea Party would no longer exist. Perhaps it never would have existed, would never have needed to exist.
Tragically, men and women of their ilk are woefully out of fashion in the nation’s capital these days. John Dean’s words come back to haunt us:
“I think that there’s no doubt about the seriousness of the problem we’ve got. We have a cancer within-close to the presidency, that’s growing. It’s growing daily. It’s compounding. It grows geometrically now, because it compounds itself.”