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Criticize Not Deaver, All of Washington Is For Sale

In 1961, while sitting in my White House office reflecting on the future of the great Republic, a secretary interrupted with a phone call from an attorney I had met a few nights before at a cocktail party. The conversation had been amiable, refreshingly free of political gossip.

Picking up the phone, I was almost immediately greeted with a discourse on the unjust allocation of the fixed quotas then imposed upon sugar exports to the United States. Being politely politic, it was almost a minute before I interrupted to explain that I knew nothing about sugar quotas and had no responsibility for them. The disclaimer did not stop my caller, who continued his dissertation until, pleading an imminent meeting, I terminated the conversation.

It was weeks later that a sudden flash of insight dispelled my puzzled naivete. Of course! Sitting with a prospective client--the representative of a sugar-producing country--the lawyer had picked up the phone and told his secretary to get the White House. Thus he had proven his ability to reach the highest seat of power--for a fee, undoubtedly a very substantial fee.

Ah, innocence. How swiftly lost.

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But not wholly. At least, I reflected, my caller had nothing to sell but his own scam, the appearance of influence that did not exist. Still, it was my introduction to the world of influence-peddling and corruption that in recent years has grown from a minor if ineradicable stain on political integrity to a mammoth toxic miasma that is polluting the most basic principles of democratic government.

Indeed, we have become so steeped in corruption that it almost compels one to sympathy for Michael Deaver, who has been singled out for sacrifice to the lost god of honor and integrity. A kind of ritualistic propitiation to conceal the fact that his unethical conduct is only a token of a widespread betrayal of public trust and responsibility. Deaver must die so that others may live. And if you find it difficult to feel sympathy for the former presidential aide, you should at least share anger at the hypocrisy of those among his accusers who know that his misdeeds are trivial examples of the multitude of transactions in which the favors of government are bought and sold, every hour of every day.

There is even a kind of nostalgic resonance to Deaver’s conduct. He tried to seduce clients and influence government with the coin of friendship, loyalty, past services and hard-won obligation that linked him to those in power. Others do it in harder currency. They use money. And for a reason. As on the floor of Wall Street or the shopping malls of California, in the halls of government there are riches to be made.

The scale of corruption has grown in proportion to the size of the return. The federal government spends several hundred billion dollars each year--most of it going to large corporations in order, presumedly, to buy what the nation needs. And these sums are only a fraction of the federal cornucopia. Tax laws, subsidies, trade restrictions can create or deny almost unimaginable wealth to individuals or companies or entire industries.

And so, in the sensible pursuit of self-interest, the investors come to Washington. Each election year special interests--mostly business interests--hand out more than $100 million in “campaign contributions.” They offer middle-class officials the prospect of highly paid jobs, fat contracts and lucrative consultant fees once the heady days of public service are over.

And what do they buy? “Why,” they answer, if the question is raised, “we buy access.” We are expected to believe that these millions--these tens of millions--are paid out for the pleasure of having a phone call or an office visit with a member of Congress or executive official.

It is an insult to intelligence.

They are buying votes or amendments, executive actions, special exemptions, freedom from regulation. They are buying government. And since government does not produce wealth--only transfers it--they are swindling us, all of us, the American people.

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There are, I believe, honest and principled men in government. Surely they know that the power of money is being allowed to displace the power of the people they represent. Their personal integrity does not justify failure to denounce and eradicate this poisonous betrayal of democracy. It would not be the betrayal of a secret. The media know what is happening. Business knows. Candidates and officials know. Observers know and so do commentators.

Admittedly, we are often given the facts--i.e., that the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee has raised $9 million for a virtually non-existent election fight. But the meaning of the facts is muted or wholly omitted. Something is being bought and sold in Washington. And that “something” is the democratic heritage and future well-being of the American people.

We need reforms. And there are many proposals. But more than reform we need to expose and attack--to outlaw all the ingenious and subtle forms that have been given to the ancient crime of bribery.

Richard N. Goodwin, assistant special counsel to President John F. Kennedy, is a regular contributor to The Times.

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