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One-Eyed Jacks

March 1, 2001

My favorite Western movie is Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks. The title refers to people who have a hidden side, like two of the jacks in a deck of cards who are seen in profile. Late in the story the hero, “Rio” (Brando), tells his former partner in crime, the apparently respectable but treacherous “Dad” (Karl Malden), “You’re a one-eyed jack, Dad. I seen your other side.”

Lately some one-eyed jacks have been in the news. One is Robert Hanssen, the seemingly religious and patriotic family man who worked for the FBI while selling secrets to the Russians for many years. His friends, one of whom I know personally, were astounded. They had never imagined that he, of all people, could betray his country.

Then there is the case of a former president who, in his final hours in office, bestowed pardons in return for what appears to have been cash. His fellow Democrats were amazed. They had never suspected that he, of all people, was capable of corruption.

How did Bill Clinton manage to hide his dark side from so many liberals and Democrats for so many years? The mystery deepens when you consider that conservatives and Republicans were well aware of it all along. They were tipped off by little things like perjury, subornation, obstruction of justice, illegal campaign fundraising, the selling of sensitive military data to potentially hostile foreign powers, and an occasional rape. Their opponents, meanwhile, failed to pick up these subtle clues until January 20 of this year. When the truth finally dawned on them, their shock was indescribable.

Corruption is not only a perennial problem in government; it may be intrinsic to government. We have never found effective methods of uprooting it. In fact, some of our methods backfire: the FBI does rigorous background checks on prospective government employees, only to have its files used as a blackmail data bank by a president and his staff (another of those telltale signs Clinton’s supporters overlooked).

[Breaker quote: Corrupt 
pols and corrupt voters]Clinton himself had to be elected to high office, because if he had been nominated to, say, a cabinet position he could never have been confirmed. His ill-concealed shady personal history would have forced the withdrawal of his nomination. After a few days of lurid headlines, he would have been forgotten. But having achieved the presidency, he was able to surround himself with layers of people, in the executive branch and in the news media, who were willing to overlook, or help conceal, everything. His final mistake was to embarrass them when they no longer needed him.

Corruption takes countless forms. By its very nature its extent is impossible to calculate. Every man who has something to hide may be susceptible to blackmail (hence those FBI background checks), and blackmail, being secret, is a constant hidden factor. We can never know who really rules those who rule us. The vulnerability of the individual is another reason for not investing too much power in any single government official.

The same is true of bribery. It creates a secret relation between a government official and a private interest. The bribed official no longer works for the public, but the public never knows it. In truth we have no way of knowing how much bribery, blackmail, and espionage are occurring right now. But it would be unwise to forget that these clandestine practices have always gone on under the public’s nose, no matter how many laws are passed and penalties brandished against them. We are fated to be governed by one-eyed jacks.

Sometimes corruption thrives openly, because it isn’t widely recognized as corruption. Buying votes with government money is now accepted practice in democracies, though it is merely a generalized form of bribery in which politicians bribe voters. If money really has the power to corrupt — and it certainly does — the best remedy would not be the narrow “campaign finance reform” now being touted, but the disfranchisement of anyone who receives government funds. Voters can have conflicts of interest as surely as candidates can.

The inevitability of corruption is one of the strongest arguments for limited government. A dishonest private merchant hurts only those who do business with him. A corrupt government official hurts everyone, because everyone is forced to do business with the government.

Joseph Sobran

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Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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