Character and Courage

The election victory and nationwide coverage of Senator Scott Brown from Massachusetts had me revisiting a piece I wrote in July, 2008.  In light of the current fuss and fracas between Republicans and Democrats in Congress, the lesson from this commentary is more timely than eve

Whom can we trust? Who has the credibility to lead?

These are just two of the critical questions Charles Lewis, founder of The Center for Public Integrity has raised in his investigative examinations into the inextricable link between Congress and special interests.  And yet, there are examples of leaders who do it right.  In his 1998 book, The Buying of the Congress, Lewis reminds us of two noble examples.

“[Republican John] Williams, a chicken farmer and feed dealer from southern Delaware, had never gone to college.  He spoke so quietly on the Senate floor that the news media dubbed him Whispering Willie. But when he spoke, people listened as he exposed the biggest corruption scandals of the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s – sending hundreds of government officials to prison, saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars – without a sleuthing staff, without the power of subpoena, without a special counsel serving as prosecutor.

“Congress never appropriated a penny for his investigations, and Williams paid all expenses… out of his own pocket. He always informed the subject of an investigation of his findings personally before he announced them publicly, and never once in twenty-four years did he falsely accuse anyone.

“When the Internal Revenue Service informed Williams that he had been delinquent in paying his income taxes, he investigated and discovered that not only had he properly paid his taxes, but an IRS employee had juggled taxpayer accounts (William’s among them) and embezzled $30,000.  Williams kept asking questions, and eventually 125 IRS employees were convicted and 388 were fired or quit, including the top five IRS officials.

“In the 1960s, Williams exposed the criminal exploits of Bobby Baker, the powerful secretary of the Senate Democrats and Lyndon Johnson’s protégé. Baker had amassed a personal fortune of $2.1 million by the age of thirty-four on an annual salary of $19,600.

“We now know from Michael Beschloss’s 1997 book Taking Charge and its transcripts of the Johnson White House tapes that at one point Johnson got Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield to shut down the Senate’s investigation of Baker. Johnson also said to Mansfield… ‘We’ll just have to go after Mr. Williams…He’s a mean, vicious man.’ Whether Johnson actually followed through is unknown, but as John Barron reported in Reader’s Digest back in 1965, the heat directed at Williams was enormous.

“‘I have plenty of time…and I am not about to be intimidated,’ the beleaguered Williams… warned his colleagues… Eventually, Bobby Baker was convicted of theft, income-tax evasion and conspiracy.

“Williams was willing to stand up to any President, Republican or Democrat, and the most powerful corporate interests in his own backyard.

“John Williams and Philip Hart could not have been more different from each other politically (a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat)… and professionally (the owner of a small business and a big-city lawyer). But both men were dead honest, modest and unpretentious.

“An infantryman wounded on D-Day during World War II, Hart had earlier earned a bachelor’s degree at Georgetown University and a law degree at the University of Michigan… Hart did not interact well with strangers, was reluctant to ask people to vote for him, and sometimes even apologized for running for office. Hart lost his first election, for Secretary of State, and following a stint as a U.S. Attorney… He was elected to the Senate in 1958 and served there until his death from cancer in 1976.

“Hart was known as an author and sponsor of important legislation in the areas of civil rights (he was a leader in the fight for the 1956 Voting Rights Act), antitrust enforcement, and consumer and environmental protection.

“But most unusual, then and today, Hart frequently took difficult, courageous stands on issues directly against his own political self-interest.  In late 1968, for example, a staff aide on the Senate Antitrust and Monopoly Subcommittee, which Hart chaired, proposed that the subcommittee investigate the automobile industry. Hart met the aide, Donald Randall, in the hallway:

“Don, I understand you’re recommending we go into investigation of the automobile business,” Hart observed.

“Yes, sir,” said Randall.

“Do you know that I’m running for re-election next year?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you know I’m from Michigan?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You know that the biggest business in my state is the auto industry, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And do you know that if I lose, you lose?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you still want to do it?” Hart asked.

“Yes, sir,” Randall replied.

“Well,” Hart said, “go do it!”

“For more than a year, Hart’s subcommittee held hearings on abuses in the automobile-repair business. Hundreds of angry car owners, frustrated mechanics, and auto-industry experts testified about the rampant incompetence and exploding costs in the multibillion-dollar business…

“One of the outcomes of Hart’s hearings was the 1970 Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act, which mandated fragility standards for assembling automobiles.

“Today a Senate office building is named after Hart, and inscribed in marble is the following:

‘This building is dedicated by his colleagues to the memory of Philip A. Hart with affection, respect, and esteem. A man of incorruptible integrity and personal courage strengthened by inner grace and outer gentleness, he elevated politics to a level of purity that will forever be an example to every elected official. He advanced the cause of human justice, promoted the welfare of the common man, and improved the quality of life. His humility and ethics earned him his place as the conscience of the Senate.’”

The next time any member of Congress is facing a difficult decision, he or she might ask “How would John Williams or Philip Hart decide?”  I have no doubt the choice would become much clearer.

The real question is: Do they have the courage to follow those noble examples?

 

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