Once upon a time in America, public service was viewed as a public duty and a public trust. And, as Thomas Jefferson said, “When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself public property.”
There have always been some bad apples and a measure of public corruption. That is why there are laws such as the Ethics in Government Act, to guard against the few who have sought to take advantage of their positions.
Today, however, the concept of public duty and public trust has been seriously distorted and confused with the opportunity for private gain. Too often public duty is not viewed as an end in itself, but the pathway to be suffered en route to instant riches. The biggest pot of gold at the end of the rainbow now rests just outside the White House door.
Consider the comments of Edward J. Rollins as he was leaving his job as White House political director last fall. “I spent a lot of years doing things for love,” said Rollins, then receiving a public salary of about $70,000 a year. “Now I’m going to do things for money.” Indeed, Rollins estimated that he could reap an annual salary of $750,000 to $1 million as a lobbyist and political consultant.
Now comes the case of Michael K. Deaver, the former White House deputy chief of staff who perhaps was the aide most trusted and closest to Ronald and Nancy Reagan. While under investigation for possible conflict of interest while still in office, Deaver met with White House budget officials to put in a plug for one of his lucrative lobbying clients.
With surgical precision, White House lawyers said that there was no violation of the law prohibiting former government employees from seeking to influence their former colleagues for specific periods. And Deaver has said, “I try to bend over backwards to be sure I’m covered under the law.” Such contortions should not be necessary, especially if a former public servant recognizes the responsibility of living up to the spirit of the law rather than just the letter of the law.
That responsibility seems to be particularly incumbent on this Administration, which attacks “special interests” with such frequency and such gusto but is strangely silent when the special interests happen to be old friends or political supporters.
Some people say that everyone does it, including former members of Congress. Not only is that no excuse, it also comes disturbingly close to the 1795 observation of the Marquis de Sade: “In an absolutely corrupt age, such as the one we are living in, the safest course is to do as the others do.”