The thieves are always with us in history of American politics

November 01, 1992|By Bruce Clayton





Nathan Miller.

Paragon House.

` 399 pages. $25.95. Does the name Samuel Swartout ring a bell? If not, what about Tammany Hall, Jay Gould, Teapot Dome, Spiro Agnew, Chicago's late Mayor Richard Daley? These men, organizations and schemes to defraud the government, take kickbacks, or pollute democracy by boss rule are just a few getting a black eye in Nathan Miller's "Stealing from America," a fast-paced tale of four centuries of corruption.

Swartout, a name known today only to historians, was a well-known miscreant in the last century. To "Swartout" was to steal big time or cheat the government. In the 1830s, he used his office of trust as a federal appointee under Andrew Jackson (who had vowed to clean up and scale down guv'ment) to abscond with more than $1 million from the public till. To some, he was a hero. Perhaps H. L. Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore, was right: Americans in their hearts secretly hate government and slyly admire all Swartouts.

Mr. Miller, a former Sun correspondent and staff member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and the author of a variety of books, despises all such crooks. He begins in the earliest days of American history and points an accusative finger at our forefathers who smuggled to cheat the hated British out of taxes, happily bribed officials, and grabbed land in questionable ventures. George Washington speculated in land and made out just fine. But as head of the Continental Army, General Washington grumbled when speculators stiffed the government when selling needed supplies.

The story was the same during the Civil War. Dishonest suppliers overcharged the government -- $14.50 Colt revolvers were peddled to Washington for nearly twice that amount. Others knowingly sold rancid meat and defective equipment to the Union troops.

Mr. Miller's lexicon of corruption includes the likes of Alexander Hamilton and Daniel Webster -- not the men, but their conservative pro-business views.

Occasionally, Mr. Miller's zeal gets the best of him, prompting him to throw off questionable asides. In trashing Webster's defense of the Bank of the United States -- whose manager in Maryland was a shyster -- Mr. Miller doubts whether Webster even thought about his views.

He rounds out his smacking of naughty hands and sticky fingers by rounding up the usual subjects as he surveys the rise and fall of Richard Nixon. Everyone's here: Spiro Agnew, H. R. Haldeman and John Erlichman, the Watergate plumbers, those incriminating tapes, Mr. Nixon's defiant farewell, even Pat Nixon's on-the-money goodbye: "It's so sad."

Mr. Miller reserves his most bitter comments for Ronald Reagan. Under his "somnolent eye," Mr. Miller writes, "as many as 225 of his appointees faced allegations of ethical or criminal wrongdoing. Some went to jail, others were forced to resign . . . rip-offs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development will come to four to eight billion dollars." The cost of bailing out the savings and loan companies could soar to "half a trillion dollars."

Our long history of corruption has aroused Mr. Miller's ire; and his contentions and castigations, if not quite the startling revelations he would have readers believe, should be remembered. But "Stealing from America" never gets beyond the tabloid level of reporting. His style is engaging, but breezy. He gives us the lowdown on lots of rotten apples, but has no coherent

explanation that puts all of them in a bushel.

Dr. Clayton is the Harry A. Logan Senior Professor of American History at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.

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