By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, October 14, 1986
Yom Kippur is not a religious holiday for everyone, but its theme — asking for forgiveness for the wrongs one has committed during the year — is universal, which makes it an appropriate occasion for looking at the state of ethics that prevails these days in private and public life.
I am fully aware that this is a subject the mere raising of which is guaranteed to cause many eyes to glaze over, but that may be the central question: Have we become so cynical about basic values that we are now comatose and deaf to discussion of them?
New York City is a good place to look at the issue because, rightly or wrongly, this city sets much of the idea agenda for the rest of the nation. Big money is here, big television is here, big culture is here, big lawyering is here, big journalism is here, big real estate is here and big politics is here. Bigness doesn’t translate into good principles – in fact, most of the time it does the opposite — but it does, for better or worse, set the agenda.
And it would be hard not to notice that the agenda in New York these days is one that winks at corner-cutting, sail-trimming, point-shaving and all the other methods of ethical see-no-evil known to man.
On Wall Street, insider trading has become a national sport. In the world of skyscraper-building, powerful law firms show major real estate entrepreneurs how to get away with breaking the law as they erase neighborhoods and replace them with ugly, tall money machines. In politics here, too many practitioners have been seeking public office only as a means to fill their large pockets; the current municipal corruption trial and the many ongoing investigations will continue to provide proof of this grand larceny.
As a response to the widespread city scandals, the governor and the mayor commissioned a panel headed by Michael Sovern, president of Columbia University, to recommend reforms in the ethics and campaign-financing laws that govern public servants and political party officials. The commission has worked hard and keeps producing proposals for change, but those anti-corruption proposals require enactment into law by either the City Council or the State Legislature. And little is happening in either body.
“Sad to say, pressure is not yet coming from the voters,” said Sovern.
One of the Sovern commission members, Felix Rohatyn, said he had thought, when he joined the group, that public outrage would be so intense “that change would be inevitable.”
“I was wrong,” he said. “The stench that has come up from the city is absolutely overwhelming, but it doesn’t seem to bother us. People seem to be used to it.”
I wonder if responsibility for the apathy about government corruption lies as much with “the people” as with those who set the agenda — our key elected officials. It might well be asked whether it is in the self-interest of those elected officials to stir up public outrage.
For example, Mayor Edward Koch, who has been at the center of the storm, has spent most of his time on a publicity campaign that seeks to persuade the voters that he not only had nothing to do with the corruption but also had no way to have known about it in advance. When reporters ask why he wasn’t aware of what was happening in his own city agencies, he challenges them to explain why they hadn’t discovered the bribery and crookedness themselves. In reply, reporters occasionally try to point out to the mayor that city agencies do not report to them but to him; Koch calls this suggestion ridiculous.
There will be no groundswell of public indignation as long as the leader in City Hall tries to minimize the crookedness that occurred while he was in charge. There will be no pressure on Albany as long as the mayor spends more time cutting ribbons and planning his photo opportunities that he does leaning on the Legislature to enact new ethics law.
Now that new laws will change the ethical climate. That will take leadership by example, not leadership that pooh-poohs corruption as something that has been ever-present and never changing, from the beginning of time.
A few weeks ago, in one of his typical recent speeches about the observation that “there is less corruption in city government than in the private sector.” He cited shady practices on Wall Street as his evidence.
A reporter asked why he was making such a comparison, since Wall Street is devoted to making money while City Hall “is a place that’s supposed to be devoted to serving the public.”
The mayor’s response? “I never heard of anything as foolish as that statement.”
Certainly some degree of corruption is inevitable in government or in any large bureaucracy, but downplaying it is not the way to keep it from getting worse.