Government Symptoms of the People's Disease


October 19, 1990|By Cal Thomas

WASHINGTON — LEGISLATIVE gridlock. Official corruption and scandalous behavior by public officials. Congressional inaction and disorder. Moral decay. Debates over procedure. Press criticism of elected officials. Congressional pay raises. The beginnings of a popular revolt.

The America of 1990? No, this was the America of more than a century ago. The advent of the Ulysses Grant administration in 1869 brought with it uninterrupted Republican hegemony for more than a generation, accompanied by widespread political and economic corruption. Henry Adams wrote in his 1880 novel ''Democracy'' that the United States ''had a government of the people, by the people, for the benefit of senators.''

There was a connection then, as now, between lax morals and the public's unwillingness to require something better from their leaders.

Alvin M. Josephy described the connection between moral decay and political decline in the late 19th century in his book, ''On the Hill: A History of the American Congress.'' Mr. Josephy said that ''corruption, feeding on power, affected the governing of the country. The problems of staying in power, of maintaining the machines, of pursuing politics night and day for its political rewards, became all-important. Men wasted their talents in petty political infighting and gave short shrift to the pressing needs of the changing country. Few issues were seriously debated; indeed, few of the urgent problems -- those of the farmers, the workers and the burgeoning urban centers -- were even accurately perceived.''

What's changed? Only the size of the problems. The Grant administration was wracked by a series of political, economic and ethical debacles that filled the newspapers with lurid accounts of massive graft in many government agencies. There was plenty of scandal in Congress, too, but the senatorial bosses and state political machines effectively deflected attention to the White House and away from the Capitol, until later.

By 1873, when most of the scandals had been dealt with, Congress congratulated itself by voting pay raises. It doubled the president's salary to $50,000 and increased members' own pay from $5,000 to $7,000. Newspapers then, as now, called it a ''salary grab.''

The furor inspired Mark Twain's immortal line, ''It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress.''

In his 1885 study ''Congressional Government,'' Woodrow Wilson wrote: ''No one exercises the special trust of acknowledged leadership.''

There were ''do-nothing'' Congresses then (the 50th in 1889). There was legislative gridlock brought on by different parties controlling different branches of government. Theodore Roosevelt wrote in North American Review that the House of Representatives had become ''a complete travesty upon representative government, upon popular government and upon government by the majority.'' He said that drastic revision of the rules was needed ''to change the condition of the House from dead rot to vitality.''

Many newspapers in 1888 were calling for reform. Members of Congress grew tired of the legislative process. Sen. George Hoar of Massachusetts observed, ''It would be a delightful thing to be a United States senator if you did not have to attend the sessions of the Senate.''

What was needed then to break out of a downward spiral is what is needed now: genuine political leadership and the moral and spiritual revival of the people.

When William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Teddy Roosevelt became president. Mr. Josephy describes him as a ''masterful politician who won the enthusiastic support of the majority of Americans by championing their anger against the excesses of powerful forces within the country and their feeling of national superiority in the world.'' He possessed a strength, wrote Mr. Josephy, that helped him dominate and frustrate opponents in and out of Congress.

But Roosevelt probably would have had less success in his reform movement without the spiritual revival that swept the country in 1905. People realized that their own lives needed transforming and many turned to God.

In 1990 America, we have experienced 30 years of immorality. We debate whether pornographic ''art'' is legitimate while this modern Rome burns. We abort babies in record numbers. Families unravel. Crime engulfs our cities. The prison population doubles. We ingest or inject legal and illegal drugs as never before. Political convictions come only in court.

''We have forgotten God,'' said Abraham Lincoln in 1863, ''that's why all these things have happened.'' And so it is today. As the contemporary theologian Carl Henry has expressed it, ''Man's own will becomes the only law he tolerates; virtue is whatever makes one feel 'good.' . . . Happiness is defined as the gratification of sensual desires: Adults and teen-agers become sexually obsessed apes. Society accommodates carnal appetites that undermine life-giving realities. Malcolm Muggeridge has observed that as the phallic cult spreads, more people become impotent.''

Has anything changed in America from a century ago? Not really. Then, as now, our government is sick because it caught a disease from the people it is supposed to govern. Only when the people have had enough and decide to revive morality in their own lives will our government reflect the decency of the people it represents.

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