With no warning, in the opening paragraph of Richard Cohen’s recent column (“What Price Service?”), there it was, in black in white: “Charles Lewis, drop dead.” Not that I haven’t heard such sentiments before, sometimes in much coarser language. It is an occupational hazard as the head of the Center for Public Integrity. Given the critical, independent nature of our work, we certainly recognize that we won’t ever win any popularity contests in Washington.
Nonetheless, the extent of Cohen’s caffeinated conniption was quite surprising. His calumnious column mentioned my organization and me by name no fewer than 10 times, fortunately with the correct spelling, with such endearing prose as “the scowling, judgmental face of Charles Lewis,” “Charles Lewis and his gang of virgins,” “So shut up, Charles Lewis” and so on. By the way, since 1990 our award-winning “gang of virgins” has been very busy, producing 100-plus books, studies and online investigative reports about political influence, corruption and ethics-related issues, roughly 2 million words that Cohen, whom I’ve never met, probably has never read.
The basis for his perturbation was a comment I made in a New York Times article that annoyed him about how some extremely wealthy Bush Cabinet officials divesting some of their stocks because of potential conflict of interest issues are losing money in a down stock market. I said in The Times, “Pardon me if I don’t get out a handkerchief. It is a great honor and privilege to serve at the highest levels of government, and it is a free country. These guys don’t have to do it.” What followed was a peculiar paean by Cohen to the financial sacrifice and patriotism of these American businessmen-turned-Cabinet officers “uncharacteristic” for their “nearly fatal . . . lack of greed.” So much for the famous journalistic adage about afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.
By taking steps to avoid conflicts of interest, these new officials have done what officials in previous administrations did, also known as “the right thing,” which is certainly commendable. There is, of course, a centuries-old tradition of successful business leaders becoming part of local, state and federal government, and then returning from whence they came. Such expertise and perspective in public service has unquestionably benefited the nation over the years. At the same time, no one including Cohen questions the need for conflict-of-interest laws and regulations to avoid the reality and the perception of profiteering from public service. Lets also not forget that business executives, lawyers and other educated professionals serving in government at substantial financial sacrifice often do so in part because they will become more knowledgeable, known and valuable following their public service.
After his stint as defense secretary, Richard Cheney personally became a very wealthy man for the first time as the CEO of Halliburton, doubling that company’s campaign contributions, lobbying expenditures and federal government contracts during his tenure there. Today, former secretary of state James Baker and former CIA director Frank Carlucci, among others, each have partnerships now reportedly worth at least $180 million in the Carlyle Group, an equity firm that also happens to be the 11th largest defense contractor. According to The New York Times, former president George Bush is currently an investor with Carlyle while his son initiates a new, multibillion-dollar defense buildup replete with lucrative new contracts. On the Democratic side, a number of former aides to former senator and vice president Al Gore, such as Peter Knight, Roy Neel, Greg Simon and others, all became wealthy lobbyists because of their perceived proximity to power.
Which brings me to the single most objectionable part of Cohen’s ode to officialdom: “Washington is so clean it’s boring. The rogues are gone, and politics has become a sort of priesthood.” Yes, the record $3 billion raised and spent by politicians and parties in last years federal elections, collected from the wealthiest 4 percent of the American people with business before the government, was a pristine, patriotic exercise, bless their hearts. And the 20,000 Washington lobbyists who helped them collect it from their corporate clients were motivated solely by altruism, and they also salute the American flag every morning.
The “priesthood” of politics would see the reversal of a campaign pledge by President George W. Bush to seek reductions in carbon dioxide emissions as completely unrelated to intensive lobbying and $3.5 million in campaign contributions from the coal industry to his campaign and the Republican Party. This “see-no-evil, hear-no-evil” approach to politics and journalism would ignore the $5.8 million in campaign contributions to Bush and his party from the mining industry (86 percent of total industry money in 2000 went to Republicans) as a salient factor in the Bush administrations recent repeal of stricter, internationally accepted standards for arsenic in drinking water. And the fact that the president and both political parties received $30 million from the bank-and-credit-card industry has nothing to do with the existence today of a new bankruptcy law.
No one disputes that there are thousands of dedicated public servants who work in government at all levels. But in Washington today, the political decision-making process is neither clean nor boring, but a corrupt, mercenary culture, countenanced by nearly all, including the occasional columnist, desperately seeking access to the highest reaches of that culture.
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Prepared remarks at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark