A system reeking of corruption

THE PARASITES on Wall Street could hardly contain their jubilation as news of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's sex scandal hit the front pages.

"This is bigger than [Fed Chairman Ben] Bernanke, bigger than oil, and it may be even bigger than the Super Bowl," said a breathless Brian Taylor, the head currency trader at M&T Bank in Buffalo, N.Y.

It was the criminals celebrating the downfall of a hypocrite. Spitzer's scramble to the top of the political heap was based on the image he carefully nurtured of the crusader upholding the rule of law and morality. Now, he stands accused of spending $80,000 on prostitutes.

The Spitzer scandal quickly transformed every "legitimate" news outlet into the equivalent of the tabloid TV show TMZ--and every politician into a shocked and/or saddened champion of morality.

That's par for the course with the political and media establishment.

Bill Clinton faced the same treatment for nothing more than an extramarital affair. He was impeached by the Republican-controlled House not for his real crimes--and there were many, from the destruction of welfare to war crimes committed in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia--but for having sex with a White House intern. And to top it off, two ringleaders of the impeachment circus--Newt Gingrich and the late Henry Hyde--were exposed for having extramarital affairs themselves.

All this highlights the hypocrisy of the politicians--Democrat and Republican alike--who rise to positions of power in the "greatest democracy on earth" by preaching about personal responsibility and "family values," and then behave according to a separate standard.

Such was the case with Bill Clinton, who signed the Defense of Marriage Act to preserve the "sanctity" of marriage from the taint of gays and lesbians. The same goes for Bible-thumping antigay bigots like Hyde.

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THE MEDIA tend to treat sex scandals interchangeably with corruption scandals--and their chief yardstick isn't principle or morality, but the impact on the political maneuvering between the two parties, especially during election years.

The truth is that politicians trading political favors to enrich themselves and their friends is the rule in the U.S. political system, not the exception--and these instances are every bit as illuminating of the double standards that Washington lives by.

Barack Obama is only a few steps removed from just such a financial scandal. Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who donated a quarter million dollars to Obama's political campaigns and apparently helped him with the purchase of property on Chicago's South Side, went on trial this month on charges of extortion and money laundering.

It's unclear whether Obama will be directly tied to any wrongdoing, but no one can doubt that Rezko is a prime specimen of the kind of creature that inhabits all levels of the political system--the political patrons and campaign contributors who use their relationships with lawmakers for business and personal advantage.

Obama's cozy relationship with Rezko flies in the face of his claims to stand for a different kind of politics, but he's hardly alone--and a prime example is Obama's rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton.

Clinton and her husband Bill were embroiled in their own real estate scandal during the 1990s: Whitewater. And when the Clintons wanted to buy a $1.7 million mansion in New York--allowing Hillary Clinton to become a resident of the state she now represents in the Senate--they got help from their veteran operative and fundraiser, Terry McAuliffe.

And this doesn't even take into account the influence peddling and backroom deals that are perfectly legal. The Washington political system runs on money, and the vast majority of it is provided by corporate and wealthy interests.

According to a study by the Center for Public Integrity, lobbyists and the companies and organizations that hire them spent a record $1.3 billion in 2006--just on the level of state government. That's a lot of money to curry favor with state politicians. At one time, it might have been called bribery; today, it's called good business.

The government is supposed to operate impartially and mete out justice on the basis of equality. But under an economic system organized around wealth and power, governments are neither impartial nor fair. Their priority is to defend and extend the interests of the rich and powerful in society, and that is why corruption and hypocrisy is endemic.

As the American socialist Eugene Debs wrote in 1902, "From millions of dollars filched from the millions of humans by the corporate owners of the common utilities, the reeking corruption funds flow like lava tides, and to attempt to purify the turbid stream by the 'reform measures' proposed from time to time by the Republican-Democratic Party in its internal conflict for the spoils of office, is as utter a piece of folly as to try with beeswax to seal up Mount Pelee."

Debs was talking about Chicago, but he had the same view of the whole system. "Capitalism, having its foundation in the slavery and exploitation of the masses, can only rule by corrupt means," he said a decade later, "and its politics are essentially the reflex of its low and debasing economic character."