by Gary Palmer
In his centennial address to Congress in 1876, President James A. Garfield said, “Now, more than ever before, the people are responsible for the character of their Congress. If that body be ignorant, reckless or corrupt, it’s because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness and corruption. If it be intelligent, brave and pure, it is because the people demand these high qualities to represent them in the national legislature.”
He added, “If the next centennial does not find us a great nation … it will be because those who represent the enterprise, the culture, and the morality of the nation do not aid in controlling the political forces.”
When I read that statement, my first thought was of Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) who is at the center of the most recent scandal in Congress. Weiner, who was widely viewed as a rising star among Democrats and a possible candidate for mayor of New York City or governor of New York, was accused of texting raunchy pictures of himself to at least six women around the country.
As is so often the case with integrity-challenged politicians, he initially tried to lie his way out. And, as is so often the case, he ultimately had to admit what he had done to the great embarrassment of his wife, family, Congressional colleagues and many in the left-wing media who hopelessly tried to defend him.
Speaking of how some in the left-wing media have reported on this, Barbara Walters made a bizarre attempt to make Sarah Palin’s bus tour somehow the equivalent of Weiner sending lewd pictures he took of himself. And MSNBC talk show host Chris Matthews even implied that Weiner’s actions were his wife’s fault.
With the exception of Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) who has called for him to resign, Republican members of Congress have largely remained quiet about Weiner. That is not surprising. Most recently, Rep. Christopher Lee and Sen. John Ensign both resigned because of sex-related scandals. Apparently, the difference between Republicans and Democrats caught in sex scandals is that Republicans are expected to resign, Democrats are expected to stay in office.
Since 2000, there have been at least 16 members of Congress embroiled in sex scandals. And those are just the ones who got caught in Washington, and only involved sex scandals. The list does not include Congressmen charged with other offenses such as tax evasion and public corruption.
The future of America depends largely on the character and courage of its people, and that in turn must be reflected in the leaders we elect. It is of paramount importance that the majority of members of Congress in both parties have reliably high standards of morality and integrity. While their ideas about the role of government and taxes and spending may still be suspect, we should at least have confidence that the vast majority don’t cheat on their spouses, send lewd photos and messages over their cell phones, cheat on their taxes or engage in corrupt activities. If we can’t trust them, then the people must shoulder the responsibility to elect people we can.
The vast majority of people expect representatives at every level of government to exercise good judgment, conduct themselves with integrity and to a great extent, to be role models, regardless of their political party. Moreover, most people want to conduct their own lives by high standards of good judgment, morality and integrity.
Given that, why is it that the weakest and least trustworthy among us keep getting elected?
In my opinion, as President Garfield warned, it is because those who shape our enterprise, our culture and our morality have not been of “… aid in controlling the political forces.” Too few people with the ability to shape our enterprise, culture and morality have been willing to speak out while too many qualified people have written off politics as too dirty for honest people. Consequently, by steering clear of politics, good people allow those with less character, less moral restraint and oftentimes with less ability, to be presented as our only choices.
The question we have to consider isn’t whether or not politicians such as Anthony Weiner or John Ensign are the only ones we can choose from. That question is answered every time a good man or woman who is qualified to hold office decides to run or not to run. It is also answered every time voters cast their votes based on their allegiance to a political party or their own self-interests, instead of the character of the candidates or what is truly best for the nation.
In that regard, given the current state of the nation and its present course, President Garfield’s statement is a stinging indictment of the choices we have made. With so many scandals involving our elected leaders, we have to ask ourselves … is this the best we can do?
Gary Palmer is president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.