The Results of Government by a TV Celebrity

By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York Newsday, November 28, 1986

President Ronald Reagan says he had no idea there were people in the White House basement walking off with the store. Mayor Edward Koch says the spreading municipal corruption scandal, whose council of ministers maintained offices on the second floor of City Hall in the Board of Estimate, is all news to him.

The president thinks that by firing a couple of the culprits, his crisis will ride off into the sunset and he’ll be able to go back to the happy routine of cartoon-land. The mayor thinks that by supporting reforms in our ethics laws, no one will notice that many of the guilty parties were and are his political friends, and then maybe he can go back to the comfort of government-by-press-release.

These are pleasant dreams — but they will only come true if the rest of us are willing to fall asleep and dream along with these men.

For Reagan’s level of disdain for the rules of a democratic system — his covert operations and cover-ups — almost make Nixon and Kissinger, those masters of the high scam, look like choir boys at a church supper. And Koch’s involvement with the men who are now either convicted or being brought to account by prosecutors, as the investigation widens and the ooze turns up everywhere, is a matter of documented history that even his convenient memory cannot erase from the public record.

Unless we, too, choose to have convenient memories, there are no fundamental surprises here. For we saw these flaws and abuses all along, though we too often chose to wish them away; it is our habit — we of newspapers and other institutions of the consensus-setting establishment — to prefer the reassuring reverie that those who govern are straight and honest and credible. The opposite proposition is too disquieting as a daily presence in our minds.

Disquieting, too, is the thought of administrations falling apart, be they local or national. So we push the idea away — seeking instead structural changes and other nostrums that will keep our reassuring images of leadership, our civic security blanket, intact. But we have learned from experience that our system of checks and balances is sturdy enough to absorb such shocks and recover.

What the system is not strong enough to tolerate is leadership by people who sneer at us and treat us with disrespect.

Mayor Koch continues to preach to the people of New York about his personal honesty. He asks us again and again to notice that none of the money from the graft has come to his pockets. But honesty is an issue much larger than bank accounts; honesty does not begin and end in one’s wallet.

If a mayor, or any other public official, is seduced by the lure of gaining and retaining power, by amassing huge vote totals in elections, this can be as corrosive as the lure of money. Because to satisfy that kind of fixation, to garner those electoral victories, a politician often has to make cynical deals with ward bosses who expect their reward to be conferred in the form of government contracts and other lucre. The deal in neither spoken nor written down, merely understood. The quid of money for the quo of votes.

Such a mayor surely did not intend the looting of the city to be the consequence of his personal ambitions, but when a mayor opts to look away from the chore of running the city, when he chooses to be a television celebrity rather than the municipal administrator, when he turns the tedious, unglamorous work over to others who include the men he made the vote-getting deals with, that is when things can go rotten.

Honest people are the majority in government employment. Some of those honest people came to Mayor Koch’s Department of Investigation with evidence years ago and tried to get someone to look at the corruption. But no on listened. And nothing was done. Until federal prosecutors came across the trail late last year.

So now we have a city administration badly distracted by the ballooning scandal, consumed by damage control as federal and local prosecutors keep finding new leads in agency after agency. Among those under investigation are such political allies of the mayor as Bronx Borough President Stanley Simon, who refuses to testify before a grand jury unless he is granted immunity, and Ramon Velez, a Bronx spoils-monger whom Koch once denounced as a “poverty pimp” but now literally embraces at campaign rallies as a vote-collector.

The mayor and the defense attorneys keep insisting that “the system” is not on trial, only the specific defendants and their specific acts. They are correct, but we have to remember that when the cumulative attitudes and deeds of a collection of men threaten to erode and subvert the system, neither criminal trials nor structural changes in government will fully heal the wound.

We also have to remind ourselves that the system, local and national, is strong and can withstand shock and will not crumble if a leader or his circle departs from office.

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