February 27, 2001
Personalized Government Service
A FRIEND recently called to discuss the scandal of the community of Hasidic Jews in Rockland County, New York, who voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton for senator in return for the assurance that her husband would pardon four of their members, who had been convicted of defrauding the federal government. Meanwhile, neighboring Hasidic communities voted overwhelmingly for her Republican opponent.
In general, my friend explained, the scrupulously Orthodox, quaintly dressed Hasidic Jews are very conservative. But they are also apolitical and rather naive about politics. When the Clintons offered them a shady deal, they didn't ask whether it was strictly proper. They just figured that this -- selling favors for votes -- is what politicians do, and they took it. They kept up their end of the bargain by voting for Hillary, thereby showing a certain sense of honor.
The flip side is that the Clintons kept up their end too. The pardons were delivered. If they had broken their word, there was nothing the Hasidim could have done about it. So the Clintons deserve credit for a certain subterranean honor too. As the old joke has it, an honest politician is one who, when bought, stays bought.
Throughout the pardon uproar, I have been struck by the fact that Bill Clinton, even in disgracing himself with the public, was keeping his word to his friends, kinfolk, and benefactors. He may have violated the public trust -- not for the first time -- but he was true to certain private loyalties.
Like the Hasidic Jews, Clinton seems to have felt that this is what politicians do. They cut deals and swap favors. Politics is a marketplace of power, power that is for sale or rent. That has been Clinton's life.
At the end of his presidency there was nothing to prevent him from reneging on his pardon bargains. It would have surprised nobody if he had forgotten the obligations he had incurred. What is surprising is that he didn't. He kept faith. Who says there is no honor among thieves? For whatever reason, he ended his days in politics by maintaining his political credit rating.
Clinton's pardons caused scandal because the public is shocked more by little crimes than by big ones. A politician who bribes huge blocs of voters by promising them billions of dollars of other people's money (in increased Social Security benefits, for example) is considered honest. But if he takes a bribe from an individual, he is considered a crook -- even if he is being paid to do what he might or should have done anyway (pardoning a man who received an unduly heavy prison sentence, for example).
Bribery can cut a lot of red tape. Sometimes a bribe is the only way a citizen can get his money's worth from an otherwise rapacious and inert government. Most of us work several months a year for the government and get nothing in return. But a well-placed bribe can save you waiting in line and guarantee personalized service. If you don't belong to a big, powerful, and well-organized voting bloc, it may be the only way to induce the government to pay attention to you. Of course it depends on whether the public servant you approach can be relied on to deliver.
Bill Clinton understands this. And, let it be said, he delivered. Hundreds of Americans can attest that his word is his bond. Those who disparage his character, not without reason, should at least take this fact into account before they condemn him. "If the devils did not keep faith with one another," a wise man has written, "hell could not subsist."
We censure the microbribe even as we accept the macrobribe. We express dismay at the anecdotal impropriety that is not essentially different from,
and is far less harmful than, the mass marketing of government favors. When we discover that the sale of political favors has been transacted between individuals, rather than among large masses of voters, we bewail the collapse of public morality. But Clinton perceived that there is no real distinction except one of scale. If he could do the one, why not the other?
Perhaps someday this larcenous government will issue a general amnesty to taxpayers who have resisted being fleeced. But until then, the individual must buy justice where he can.