Often the great rabbis become so inundated by pilgrims seeking advice and prayers that they must designate a receiving secretary to serve as a buffer and a filter. This creates a potential for abuse, as that control over access can be parlayed into various advantages. Once, the rabbi of Belzyce, Poland, was told by some congregants that his secretary was selling appointments to the highest bidder and pocketing these ill-gotten gains. But the rabbi refused to fire him.
“This much I know,” he explained. “I chose the most honest man in the city. If the job corrupted him, why should I replace him with some other poor fellow and ruin his morals as well?”
No Abramoff apologist I. More than a year ago I administered – in the pages of The American Spectator – a proper scourging. Yet the fact remains that he was not a bad guy who descended upon Washington to game the system and pad his wallet. He came with a heart brimful with good intentions that eventually paved the road to brimstone. As a leader of the national College Republicans while at Brandeis, he was imbued with the Reaganite spirit. He entered D.C. to help steward “The Contraction With America”, the effort to put Boss Tweed on a diet, to shrink bloated government. How did all that good will come undone?
And, as a corollary, is it unavoidable? Is the corruption so pervasive as to be insuperable? Inevitable, ineluctable, ineludible and inexorable? Is it impossible to be a lobbyist without dirtying your hands?
The answer must be no. And yes. No, it is not necessary to be crooked. Yes, it is possible to lobby honestly and be effective. Why, then, are many good people tempted into going by the book – without giving it a second glance?
There are motives of expediency, to be sure. It is easier to catch a Congressman’s attention if you’re dropping campaign dollars into his hat. And what better way to get someone’s ear than getting some air with him on a long lazy “fact-finding” trip to Maui?
Still, that is not a sufficient lure to make a man lose his religion. My theory is that the most powerful force that moves a person off the perch of virtue is a pernicious cocktail of social pressure by the bad guys and cynicism by the good folks.
Here’s how it works. Say you come to Washington as a lobbyist for a company or a cause that is dear to your heart, and naturally you have a big expense account to facilitate your work. Or say you come to Hollywood to produce a movie about some matter of injustice that is searing into your soul, and you bring a big bankroll to make it happen. You determine that you are not going to succumb to the temptation of turning your money into illicit favors of any sort.
When you arrive, you find that the predators who predated you there, the abusers whom you are committed to abjure, seem like very swell guys. They greet you with open arms, eager to show you the ropes… or rope you into the show. The message becomes very clear very soon: play by our rules and you’re welcome. Try to go it on your own, buddy, and you’re on your own, buddy.
It is in the nature of people who are in the wrong to seduce you into their midst even if you offer them no direct advantage. The presence of virtue causes them discomfort. The film Serpico was based on a true story, but many other films like Midnight Run and Vanishing Point have described the same scenario; the honest cop who won’t take a piece of the graft money and is shunned by his brethren in blue.
This forced choice between group acceptance and righteous isolation is a powerful trap for a man. King David begins his Psalms with this message, perhaps to offer solace in poetry to the person faced with that fork in the road: “Fortunate is the man who did not go with the counsel of the wicked, did not stand on the path of the sinners nor sat in the sessions of the mockers.”
But an awful contributing factor is when the solid people are cynical. Bonnie Raitt’s song, Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About, brilliantly highlighted this phenomenon. She describes how a rumor of an affair that wasn’t happening actually caused the affair to happen. Once all the coworkers believed that these two people were getting together, it seemed pointless to stay apart. In like fashion, if everyone winks at you when you say you’re a lobbyist, assuming nefarious monkeyshines, or elbows you in the ribs when you say you’re a producer, anticipating licentious adventures, they unwittingly erode your defenses against impropriety.
Ironically, by not thinking the worst of humanity we can sometimes help to bring out the best.