Corruption in politics, unceasing abuses

April 21, 1996|By ANTHONY LAME | ANTHONY LAME,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in American Politics," by Larry J. Sabato and Glenn R. Simpson. Times Books. 430 pages, $25.

Just in time for the United States' quadrennial orgy of presidential and congressional elections, a political scientist and journalist have teamed up to take a close look at how the electoral system is working.

As their title suggests, Larry Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia, and Wall Street Journal reporter Glenn Simpson conclude that the system isn't working well at all and is in immediate need of reform.

The authors note that most of us tend to define political corruption narrowly as bribery, extortion and graft. They, on the other hand, approach the issue with a much broader perspective, defining corruption as: "the significant impairment of integrity in the conduct of public affairs, or unlawful or unethical wrongdoing in the course of campaigning or governing."

Despite the presence of a journalist on the writing team, that eye-glazing definition sets the tone for an effort that reads more like a college textbook than popular non fiction. It also leaves the authors feeling obliged to cover every facet of the political

process. The end result is a lot of hand-wringing over relatively minor abuses. Corruption is a term that should be applied with a literary rifle, not a shotgun, or it loses its impact and meaning.

That said, there is a lot of well-researched and eye-opening information in this book.

Those of us who had hoped that the kinds of political dirty tricks and fund-raising abuses exposed during the Watergate era would be eliminated by the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) passed in the 1970s must be disappointed with what's really going on in politics today.

However well-intentioned the campaign act may have been, say the authors, it has turned out to be largely a toothless tiger. For the practitioners of politics are nothing if not clever, and they have spent the post-reform years devising sophisticated and lucrative ways to evade the act.

The explanation of how politicians do it is the best part of this book. You'll learn how they use tax-exempt, nonprofit organizations to evade both dollar limits and disclosure requirements on political contributions. You'll also find out what "bundling" is and how that practice raises millions of dollars in unreported contributions.

The authors credit political operatives on both the Left and the Right, Republicans and Democrats with inventing these sneaky techniques. But they give House Speaker Newt Gingrich top honors for refining these evasive practices to a new art form.

The authors conclude with an obligatory set of suggestions, but realistically concede that reform isn't likely until the public gets outraged enough to demand it, as happened in the Watergate era.

To that end they rightfully urge the news media to spend less time covering the horse race aspects of campaigns and devote a lot more effort examining the kinds of abuses illuminated in this book. Their book should be required reading in every newsroom and journalism school in the country.

Anthony Lame is president of Information Unlimited Inc. of Haverford, Pa, From 1978 to 1984 he organized and managed an investigative unit at KYW-TV, the "Group W" television station in Philadelphia. Before that, he worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer as a City Hall bureau chief and investigative reporter.

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