Six Questions, Washington Babylon — September 14, 2007, 8:05 am

Six Questions for Kim Long on the History of Political Sleaze

Kim Long is the author of the new book The Almanac of Political Corruption, Scandals & Dirty Politics, which chronicles several centuries of American political bribery, mudslinging, influence peddling, and adultery. Long is the author of The American Forecaster Almanac, which covers consumer and business trends in the United States. He has been a nationally syndicated columnist with News America Syndicate and a feature writer for publications such as The Old Farmers Almanac. I recently spoke with Long by phone about his book, which, I should note, draws heavily from Harper’s archives for its illustrations.

1. Political scandals are routine today? How commonly have they occurred in American history?
They predate the origins of the republic. The fundamental elements of what we see today echo what occurred during the British administration of the colonies. The development of voting rights and the establishment of a parliament in Great Britain led to patterns of corruption that followed here. The main issues were patronage and appointed positions. Governors and various administrators of the colonies paid the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their positions. In some cases people borrowed money to buy their positions, and there were known lenders to turn to, because holding office was a valuable asset. You’d come over here and basically be in charge of a rape and pillage operation, where you’d get a cut of various administrative duties that were assessed. It was routine and not necessarily illegal. That set the stage for an underlying culture of corruption and patronage that ensued after the revolution.

2. What’s one of your favorite anecdotes from the earlier days of the Republic?
One of my favorite characters was Felix McConnell, a Democratic representative from Alabama. He only served one term and was pretty much lost to history but I stumbled across him when I was hunting for weird behavior among elected officials, and he popped up as a well-known public drunk noted for brawling. He had to be removed by several club-wielding policemen from a performance by the classical violinist Ole Bull, when he shouted from the audience, “None of your high-falutin, but give us ‘Hail Columbia’ and bear hard on the treble’.” He committed suicide in 1846, when he was still in office, by stabbing himself with a pocketknife. It’s not clear why but the cause could have been dementia or delirium tremens. The single piece of legislation he sponsored while in Congress was a bill to annex Ireland.

3. Did you find any contemporary stories that are little known?
The case of New Jersey State Senator David Friedland was widely publicized in the region but not nationally. He was involved in serious corruption–he’d stolen or embezzled money from a union account controlled by the mob. He feared for his life as well as his political career so he staged his disappearance in 1985 during a scuba diving trip to the Bahamas. There were witnesses on the boat who said he had vanished and dive teams looked for him without success. It was determined that there was no way he could have survived and he was declared dead. But Friedland had stashed extra tanks of air on the ocean floor at the dive site and used them to swim away and then fled. He surfaced in the Maldive Islands three years later and was returned to the United States, where he was sentenced to a fifteen-year prison term.

4. Did you find parallels to any recent scandals?
There’s a close precedent to the Larry Craig story that took place in 1964 and involved Walter Jenkins, LBJ’s chief of staff. The incident took place in the basement Men’s Room of a YMCA a few blocks from the White House. Undercover officers allowed events to proceed and they witnessed a sexual encounter between Jenkins and another man. Unlike the Craig case, there was no guessing about what had transpired–they had, excuse the pun, hard evidence on which to base the charges. The reason that he was discovered was that after he was arrested he accidentally put down his work address instead of his home address. Some cub reporter that routinely checked the police blotter went in and–I’m surmising here–probably was not familiar with the name of every member of Congress or administration official, but certainly recognized the address of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s what triggered the whole thing. Within 24 hours Jenkins was dumped by LBJ, his closest personal friend, because the election was just a month away and there was fear that Barry Goldwater would make a big stink about it.

5. What’s changed over time in terms of the impact that these scandals have and the media’s coverage of them?
Look at the case of Congressman Wilbur Mills. In 1974, he was pulled over while speeding, and apparently drunk, near the Tidal Basin in Washington. An Argentine stripper and who knows what else named Annabell Battistella, aka Fannie Foxe or the “Argentine Firecracker,” ran from the car and jumped into the water. What’s interesting is that Foxe was well known as an exotic dancer but Mills had allowed himself to be photographed while escorting her around and was never terribly embarrassed by her. After the story broke, there was no rush to get him out of office (though he didn’t run for re-election afterwards). Compare that with the Craig case. It’s hard to look at dispassionately, but just a few taps of the feet and movements of the hand quickly ended a career. It makes you wonder about the sensitivity of the public and the media to these types of things.

6. Did you reach any conclusions about the question of which of the two current major parties is more corrupt, and whether the problem of corruption itself is worsening?
It would be false for anyone to claim that either party had a more of a proclivity for unethical or immoral or illegal practices. There are individual cases on both sides. I did find that geographic stereotypes were largely true – there has been a lot of corruption in places like Chicago, Louisiana, and New Jersey. But I was shocked to have to add Hawaii to the list. That’s probably the most corrupt state, if you go down to the level of local alderman, in terms of the number of people convicted and sent to jail, in comparison to the size of the population. I wouldn’t attempt to dispel the idea that many politicians are dishonest. It’s a problem that has always been there. But there have been about 14,000 members of congress, and far less than one percent have ended up with black marks by their names. You have to assume that many don’t get caught, but the real lesson here is that some politicians cheat and that power does corrupt some politicians, but not all of them.

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