In "All the King's Men," the greatest of political novels, Willie Stark, "the Boss," tells his minion, Jack Burden, to dig up some dirt on an opponent, a judge who is seemingly above reproach. "There is always something," says the Boss. "Maybe not on the judge," replies Burden. The Boss offers his philosophy of life: "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something."
There is always something, and Burden discovers that the judge, many years before, took a bribe. "For nothing is lost," Burden learns, "nothing is ever lost. There is always the clue, the canceled check, the smear of lipstick, the footprint in the canna bed, the condom on the park path, the baby shoes dipped in bronze, the taint in the blood stream."
There is always something, especially on those who crave public power and recognition. For the same wants and needs and desires that drive individuals to reach for power also make them reach for other things, like a bottle or a bribe. Human nature has always been weak, and among the grasping, even weaker. What's new is watching it revealed every day on C-Span.
Sin was long accepted by the body politic, and up to a point, forgiven or overlooked. FDR and JFK had their girlfriends; Lyndon Johnson somehow became a multimillionaire on a government salary. There were exposes, to be sure--Alexander Hamilton was almost wrecked by a sex scandal leaked by some congressmen--but they were episodic. Foibles could be exploited, but the method was more often the whispering campaign and blackmail than a congressional hearing. J. Edgar Hoover remained head of the FBI for a half century by not exposing the dirt he gathered on presidents and members of Congress.
That was before the creation of the "permanent scandal production machine," as author Suzanne Garment has described the web of prosecutors, reporters, investigators and committee staffers who feed on the two or three scandals that Washington has going at any one time. All those student protesters attacking power in the late '60s now wear suits to work, and get paid for exposing the peccadilloes of the powerful. "Fighting the established order has become a yuppie job," notes Garment in her new book, "Scandal: The Culture of American Politics." Members of Congress can be slow to catch on, but even they have joined the hunt. During Watergate, the Senate had difficulty persuading seven senators to join a committee to investigate the scandal. Now lawmakers line up to get on the investigative committees that get the juiciest scandals-and the most air time.
Or at least they did until last week. The members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have learned that what goes around, comes around. How did Sen. Edward Kennedy feel watching Clarence Thomas squirm? As Washington begins to eat its own, some of the carnivores are beginning to feel queasy. The Washington Post, the paper that did more than any other to launch the modern age of scandal by deposing Richard Nixon, was notably tempered on its editorial pages last week, warning that Thomas should not be judged too hastily. At one major daily newspaper, editors uneasily debated over whether to print the titles of X-rated movies rented by Judge Thomas. (An enterprising reporter had dug up the records.) The paper decided to hold off. Some op-ed writers were beginning to call for a sense of proportion, or at least a statute of limitations. There was a recognition that few mortals could pass the modern morality test-or want to try in the first place by entering public service. Many reporters would flunk the test. So, ironically, would the historic guardians of the First Amendment. No members of the Warren court did more to extend freedom-of-the-press safeguards than Justice William O. Douglas and Justice Hugo Black. But how would Black, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, or Douglas, an incorrigible skirt chaser, have fared in today's confirmation hearings?
No one is suggesting a return to the days of "hear no evil, see no evil." Just because political-action committees institutionalized bribery doesn't mean that the old system--bags of cash dropped in a drawer--was better. At least the disclosure laws have pushed the payoffs out into the open. The problem with the scandal machine is that it's all consuming. It cannot distinguish between human foibles, which might be forgiven, and true outrages that harm the public interest. Washington has adopted the ethos of the Spanish Inquisition: burn them all, and let God choose his own. If anything, reporters, who for all their zeal can be lazy, are better at ferreting out human lapses than more serious institutional failings. Hence, the press pounced on the womanizing John Tower, Bush's choice to be secretary of defense, but largely ignored the S&L fiasco until it was $500 billion too late.
What Anita Hill claims Clarence Thomas did to her seems unforgivable in a man who would be a Supreme Court justice. But that doesn't mean that the process that Thomas said was "drowning my life, my career and my integrity" is either fair or just. The Boss may have been right, that man is conceived in sin, and that there is always something. But the scandal machine can be a sorry and crude way to find it.