Mr. Smith goes to prison
Moreso than perhaps any other industry, politics requires its young aspirants to attach their hopes and dreams to the career of another individual. The most common path to success for aspiring political strategists is typically to dedicate themselves wholly to the campaign of a promising candidate and hope for victory.
For those who choose the right candidate, the system works well. As with all human partnerships, however, there is a very real risk of betrayal.
As state Sen. Jeff Smith’s recent resignation and guilty plea reflect, finding an honest candidate is not easy. Unless they have already been indicted, corrupt politicians do not wear scarlet letters or orange jumpsuits. Instead, they make promises of integrity and hope that voters fail to see through the façade.
In Smith’s case, that façade was particularly strong. He portrayed himself as an incorruptible newcomer who ran for office out of a genuine desire to improve people’s lives. His alleged integrity was even the subject of a documentary whose title, “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?” is a reference to fictional political neophyte and man of integrity, Jefferson Smith.
Worse, not only did Smith build a reputation for idealism and ethical behavior, but he also preached it to his students. I still have my notes from the day Smith lectured to his “Campaigns and Elections” class on responding to scandals, including the section on “ethical questions to consider.” I attended a forum featuring Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein during which Smith spoke about the ethical problems plaguing contemporary politics and the need to address them. I even recall Smith lecturing on the illegality of coordination between campaigns and groups preparing independently funded advertisements and literature, the very offense Smith has been convicted of hiding.
Even more troubling, many of his campaign supporters knew Smith personally. If they could not accurately assess the character of a politician they knew, how can we even hope to correctly identify honest candidates whom we have never met?
Of course, corruption is not always a pervasive disease. Sometimes, and perhaps this is true of Smith, otherwise honest politicians get caught up in the need to win and make isolated, yet permanently damaging, mistakes.
Smith’s case is not my first experience with corruption in politics. As the daughter of a federal prosecutor, I learned about corruption before I could even spell the word “politics,” and I have seen my fair share of so-called “reformers” earn their day in court. Yet Smith’s downfall is a powerful reminder of a few important lessons for aspiring political idealists.
First, we should be careful whom we choose to support, and run when we sense corruption. It may not be easy to recognize every dishonest politician, but when there are warning signs, we should not ignore them.
Second, we should not attempt to cover up mistakes. Had Smith been honest with the Federal Election Commission investigators from the beginning, he probably would not be facing jail time. In nearly every major political scandal from Watergate onward, the mistakes are often trivial, and yet the cover-up is damning.
Finally, in a resignation letter to his constituents, Smith wrote to his former campaign supporters, “There are no perfect people and no perfect candidates, but I hope you’ll find a candidate or a cause in which you believe and fight for it with the same zeal you fought for me. Because the real tragedy of my lapses would be if they discouraged people like you from civic engagement.”
It is difficult now to quote Smith and attribute to him any lasting wisdom. But politics is about people rather than icons and pragmatism rather than perfection. Despite the frequent corruption, politics is still one of the most meaningful ways for good people to make a difference. Furthermore, the only sure way to reform politics is for honest people to try their best.
So thanks for the last lesson, Senator. Mr. Smith might not be going to Washington anymore, but we should.