Abuse of power, ethical failure not limited by race

2013-02-26T00:00:00Z Abuse of power, ethical failure not limited by raceColbert I. King Special To The Washington Post Arizona Daily Star

This week I received an email with the subject line: "Please Colbert, write about Jesse Jackson Jr. and father."

The message from Dennis Flynn was brief: "Please write about the part genetics play in the problems in the Jackson family lineage. Out-of-marriage children by a minister. Fraud and stealing by a congressman. What an example for young African-Americans."

It was a racial taunt, perhaps best ignored.

But the attempt to twist the knife also displayed ignorance.

The writer chose to view the fall of Jesse Jackson Jr. through the lens of race, ignoring how widespread the conduct he deplored has become.

Public figures fathering a child out of marriage? The emailer failed to mention former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican; former senator and Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards; Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.; former New York representative Vito Fossella, a Republican; the late Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond, a former presidential candidate; or former New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, a Republican - all of whom did what Jesse Jackson Sr. had done.

Misconduct while in public office? The list of violators is endless and spans the racial and religious spectra. But surely this emailer knows that.

Less speculative and more serious, however, is the writer's suggestion that the two Jacksons are poor examples for "young African-Americans."

People who think this should take off their racial blinders. They have obscured perception of a chronic plague in public life: the temptation to misuse and abuse power.

Misconduct is found at all levels of government, and in both parties.

I could spend the rest of the year writing about those on Capitol Hill, from both parties, who at some point disgraced their offices and themselves. In all cases, the individual crossing the line occupied a position in which he or she had been held to a higher standard. They all fell short.

The standard itself is straightforward and applies to every level of government, whether city or county council, Congress or the White House: Serve with honor and act only in the public interest. No more, no less.

But up pops the devil - that nasty old thing called power.

Why the ethical shortfalls among the powerful? Was Lord Acton correct in observing, "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely"? Or does power provide an opportunity for those predisposed to behave badly?

The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, named after the British historian, published an article by Ben Moreell that expands on this question.

Moreell suggests that when an individual gains power over others - to the extent that they will do the person's bidding whether or not they agree - "a moral weakness develops in the person who exercises that power."

It may take a while for the weakness to develop, Moreell wrote, because the person may not be innately bad. But the moral weakness will eventually show itself.

Moreell ends his essay with this stinger: "If the benevolent ruler stays in power long enough, he eventually concludes that power and wisdom are the same thing. And as he possesses power, he must also possess wisdom. He becomes converted to the seductive thesis that election to public office endows the official with both power and wisdom. At this point, he begins to lose his ability to distinguish between what is morally right and what is politically expedient."

So back to where we began. This isn't about race or genetics or setting examples for young African-Americans. Neither is this issue about the corruptibility of power. As author Harry Shearer asked: "If absolute power corrupts absolutely, does absolute powerlessness make you pure?"

The challenge rests with us. What do we demand - not seek, but demand - from our leaders? Do we push back when asked to go along?

If not high ethical standards, then why bother?

King is a former deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Post.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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