Richard Frost
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 Richard H. Frost       (link to original where you can comment)

1/17/2009 - 1/18/09

 As the inauguration day for Barack Obama approaches, one of the ghosts in the wings is the possibility that federal corruption may emerge to compromise his administration, as it did George W. Bush's. Anxiety already exists in view of the Blagojevich scandal, the investigation of Gov. Bill Richardson, and the possible influence in foreign relations of foreign donors to Bill Clinton's library. What is to prevent a few of the newly empowered federal officers this month from contaminating the whole? We anticipate huge federal expenditures, which will attract deal-makers like flies to honey.

Conservative ideology predicts dishonesty in government, but it is in fact possible for a reform-oriented government to accomplish its objectives without bribery or personal conflicts of interest. The template for this is the New Deal, which liberal commentators like Paul Krugman have pointed out as a model for current emulation.

Corruption in the New Deal was rare. At senior levels it did not exist. Why? In general, Americans went into national politics in the early 20th century for one of three reasons: republican idealism, personal advancement or the drive for national reform. The first of these, then as now, was initially important but sometimes dwindled with the daily demands of office, leaving self-advancement and a passion for reform as the dominant motives.

In the 1930s, the opportunities and needs for reform were vast. They upstaged personal advancement, particularly since the chances in the Great Depression of growing wealthy through politics were dismal. But there were two other factors not commonly recognized that helped Franklin D. Roosevelt to achieve squeaky-clean government.

One was the moral influence of the Protestant middle-class progressive movement of the preceding generation, led by such political luminaries as Robert LaFollette, Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Evans Hughes and Woodrow Wilson. Their drive for political reform was undergirded by old-fashioned, mainstream Protestant standards of personal morality. Among the next generation of progressives and other Americans influenced by progressive values were Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harold Ickes, Henry A. Wallace and Frances Perkins. Ickes, Wallace and Perkins became FDR's secretaries of the interior, agriculture, and labor. Their departments oversaw most of the spending of taxpayers' money between 1933 and 1939. In particular, Ickes' determination and rectitude kept the Department of the Interior famously free of scandal.

The second factor was the role in the New Deal administration of recent immigrant ethnic Americans, above all, Jews, who had previously been discriminated against in public service. Some of them now became major public servants ” figures such as Sam Rosenman, David Lilienthal and Felix Frankfurter. Irish Catholics also found new opportunities in federal service. For such Americans, national careers provided their own stimulation and reward.

Are there equivalents today for Barack Obama to draw on? Regarding minorities newly empowered in public service, yes. These prospects have already begun to unfold. But the "good government" ethos of early 20th-century progressivism, with its cultural inhibitions, buttoned-up righteousness, and vast capacity (as with Theodore Roosevelt) for public indignation, has lost its charter. Obama will have to replace it with something else.

One alternative, already in evidence, is the rigorous vetting of candidates for Obama's nomination to public office. Another is Obama's own preparation for a "transformative presidency," as a co-founder of The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner, calls it ” a presidency comparable to FDR's. Actually, Obama is better prepared now than Roosevelt was in 1933: Obama's intellectual achievements, knowledge of constitutional law, awareness of Keynesian economics, and service in the U. S. Senate all put him ahead of Roosevelt at their respective inaugurations.

But the best hope we have is for an alert public to stand on guard for honest, open government ” something we and Congress have monumentally failed to do for the past eight years.

Richard H. Frost is an emeritus professor of history, Colgate University. He lives in Santa Fe.   
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