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Cameron Tharp

Rotten to the core?

Politics | Pervasive corruption could be harder to correct than wrongdoing at the top

Issue: "Rejecting religious liberty," June 15, 2013

With at least three significant scandals now afflicting the Obama administration day in and day out (and the mainstream media regularly calling all three “scandals”), the altogether natural question in the minds of millions is: Just how high within the Obama team did these illegalities rise? What did the president and his top aides know—and when did they know it?

For most thoughtful people, that’s a perfectly legitimate question. Forty years ago, during the Watergate crisis, we learned not to take at their word the loyalist fall guys who swore, on oath, that their bosses were innocent. We learned to keep digging. We learned that, just maybe, the man at the top was himself involved and altogether guilty. The only way to clean up a terrible mess was to hold the top man, and his top people, responsible.

So it’s altogether natural for us to be asking those same questions now.

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But could it be that in our fierce search we might discover something much worse than complicity at the top? Might there be a situation in which we find our plight to be more ominous than having a president who issues a few blatantly illegal and unconstitutional orders?

Here’s what is worse—and maybe a lot worse. What if the whole governmental structure is so bad, so rotten to its core, that no one at the top even needs to issue any perverse orders? What if the inclination to abuse the power of the Internal Revenue Service, and to invade thousands of taxpayers’ privacy, is so thorough that it’s just an expected modus operandi? What if no one has to tell a third-level operative in the Justice Department that the way to move ahead is to hack some journalist’s cell phone? What if everyone “up there” understands that cover-up always trumps telling the truth—and cover-up becomes a habit?

No one has summarized this frightening idea more pointedly than James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal: “[T]he scandal is actually much worse,” he writes, “if the IRS was acting without guidance from the White House. A corrupt administration can be ousted through resignation or impeachment, as in 1974. If the IRS and other permanent institutions of government are fundamentally corrupt, reforming them would be much more complicated and effortful.”

So now we’re no longer talking, as Richard Nixon’s attorney John Dean did, about “a cancer on the presidency.” Now we have to talk about “a cancer on the whole government.” And which do you suppose is easier to treat?

But hold on. There may be something more troublesome yet. There may be a scenario a thousand times more to be feared. That situation comes when the people being governed themselves no longer own the kind of moral compass that helps them judge between good and evil. That may be because they simply no longer care, and have become numb to such distinctions. Or it may be because they too have been taught that all morality is relative—and out of conviction they simply aren’t ready to pass judgment on anyone or anything.

It was a shrewd observer who, sizing up the political realities of the world, said, “People pretty much always get the kind of leaders they deserve.” 

It’s clear now, if it wasn’t before, that we have a president who doesn’t care much about constitutional freedom or truth telling in public life. And it’s clear he’s put into high office a worrisome number of folks who don’t care about freedom and truth telling any more than he does. And it’s left to the rest of us to discover anew that accurately assigning the ultimate blame for all this is a tedious task. 

But what if, in the process, we learn that the millions of voters who put this prevaricating crew into office don’t care about truth telling any more than their government does? If the whole society proves rotten to the core, who’s going to be left to write up those articles of impeachment?

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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