by Roger Kimball
In January 1956, John F. Kennedy published Profiles in Courage, biographical encomia to eight U.S. senators, from John Quincy Adams to Robert Taft, whom Kennedy thought exhibited conspicuous courage in the discharge of their public duties.
I say Kennedy published Profiles in Courage. But the book was written not by JFK but by the loyal Kennedy apparatchik and fixer Ted Sorensen. Sorenson, like so many in the Kennedy circle, was a bit thuggish. He was also an eloquent writer. Remember this famous bit from Kennedy’s inaugural? “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Nicely put, and it was put by Sorensen, merely read by Kennedy.
Anyway, Profiles in Courage was an early installment in that long-running (indeed, still-running) effort to obscure the distasteful reality of JFK with a carefully cultivated image of an eager yet culturally sophisticated patriot (see the index under “Pablo Casals visits the White House”).
Profiles in Courage deserves its place in that vast mythopoeic enterprise the public knows as Camelot. But a much more important book is Peter Schweizer’s Profiles in Corruption: Abuse of Power by America’s Progressive Elites.
Schweizer will be known to many readers of American Greatness. He is unquestionably our most accomplished anatomist of “using public power for personal gain. . . . cronyism, corruption, patronage, and intimidation.” His string of bestsellers includes Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends, and Throw Them All Out: How Politicians and Their Friends Get Rich Off Insider Stock Tips, Land Deals, and Cronyism That Would Send the Rest of Us to Prison.
Do not be misled by the name “Clinton.” Schweizer’s subject is not perfidy, corruption, and self-dealing by Democrats, but perfidy, corruption, and self-dealing by politicians regardless of party. Republicans figure prominently in several of his books. If Democrats figure so heavily in others – exclusively in Profile in Corruption – it is because these days Democrats tend to be more accomplished at corruption, as they are at political hardball in general, than Republicans. The name “Clinton” should remind us all of that, as it should remind students of early 19th-century English literary history of William Hazlitt’s astute observation that “those who lack delicacy hold us in their power.”
Schweizer frankly acknowledges that many – well, some – politicians, on both sides of the aisle, are honest public servants, men and women who “navigate the challenging world of politics with integrity, and for the good of the country.” This is undoubtedly true – as is his observation that such straight shooters “appear to be a dying group.”
In his new book, Schweizer considers a rather different cast of characters from those that Kennedy-Sorensen eulogized. Instead of heroes like John Quincy Adams, Sam Houston, and Daniel Webster, Schweizer focuses his searchlight on nine figures who exemplify political corruption in the administrative state that is America today. More than half of the figures are household names – Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders. The rest are prominent but somewhat lesser-known Democrats: Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Schweizer begins his book with a look back at Robert Penn Warren’s classic tale of political corruption, All the King’s Men. By today’s standards, the bribery that was at the center of Judge Irwin’s corruption in Warren’s novel seems almost quaint in its simplicity. As Schweizer notes, “While few today would follow the outdated pattern of 1930s bribery, current political figures often benefit from financial ties with special-interest parties that are hard to trace, obscured behind what seems like a rock wall. . . . Part of the challenge is first identifying the tie between political power and those with whom they leverage their position.”
The rhetorical power of Schweizer’s books stems from two things: first, meticulous research that provides the gem-like elements of his political portraits, and second, an evenhanded, almost deadpan, narrative style in which facts are marshaled, set forth, and left to speak for themselves without undue editorializing.
Writing about Kamala Harris, for example. Schweizer minutes her early career as a district attorney in San Francisco and her avid support for Barack Obama in 2004 when he was running for the U.S. Senate. She shot to prominence, but her rise, Schweizer shows, is “far more complicated” and “troubling” than Harris’s own PR would acknowledge.
“Harris’s elevation to national politics,” he notes, “is closely tied to one of California’s most allegedly corrupt political machines and investigations into her tenure as a prosecutor raise disturbing questions about her use of criminal statutes in a highly selective manner, presumably to protect her friends, financial partners, and supporters.” Schweizer details Harris’s 82 Comments, the powerful (and, incidentally, married) California pol who was more than 30 years Harris’s senior. Brown smoothed the way for Harris’s budding career, steering influence, and remunerative appointments her way.
Schweizer’s inventory of Harris’s shady behavior while attorney general for California is partly shocking, partly numbing. Harris was always ready to look the other way when powerful political interests were involved, but ferocious when dealing with people without power or influence.
Since Harris is now on her way to the political oubliette, however, Schweizer’s discussion of her depredations is of less exigent interest than his discussion of other figures, especially Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders, all, remarkably enough, leading contenders for the Democratic nomination for president. What Schweizer says about Warren provides a theme of which the other candidates provide faithful variations.
When Warren first emerged on the political scene, in the years following the financial crisis of 2008, she was hailed as a progressive heroine, untainted by the grubby power-politics of Wall Street. But as Schweizer shows, with Elizabeth Warren, image and reality diverge sharply.
“Her family’s accumulation of wealth,” he notes,
even while she has risen to power championing attacks on corporate America, has been deeply dependent on those same corporations. Indeed, in the 1990s she effectively leveraged her position working as a government consultant on bankruptcy issues to reap a rich financial harvest as a legal consultant for the biggest corporations in America. And her family has benefited from other corporate ties. The fundamental contradictions between what she presents herself to be and what she has done provide for remarkable contrasts.
Remarkable, indeed. But, in the end, less remarkable than the walking spectacle of corruption that is Joe Biden.
We’ve all heard about, and then been admonished not to heed, the stories about the world extortion tour of Hunter Biden, the former vice-president’s son, during which he extracted millions in fees and billions in contracts from China, Ukraine, and elsewhere. Biden pere keeps telling the world not to look at that man behind the curtain, but when we have videos of Joe Biden bragging about how effective was his threat to withhold $1 billion in aid to Ukraine unless a prosecutor looking into a company on whose board his son sat (monthly fees: north of $50,000), then it is hard to take Biden seriously.
Once again, image and reality diverge. The image Joe Biden has always cultivated is of a man of humble origins and working-class sympathies. But the reality is that he sits like a spider at the center of a web of financial interests that his two brothers, Frank and James, his sister, and his son Hunter and daughter oversee and profit from. They did quite well during the more than three decades that Biden was a U.S. senator.
But as Schweizer dryly notes, when Barack Obama picked Biden as his running mate in 2008, “it boosted the Biden family fortunes to another level. Now suddenly there were opportunities on a global scale. The executive branch offered an abundance of power to leverage, and the value of the Biden family’s commercial deals, especially those of Hunter, James, and Frank, would skyrocket.”
Schweizer cites chapter and verse in his indictment of the Bidens and other figures in this danse macabre. His real subject, however, is not this unsavory lot of so-called “progressive” politicians. Rather it is a truth of human psychology summed up in Milton Friedman’s observation that “Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.”
All the figures that Schweizer discusses are known as “progressives” of one stripe or another, from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren at the heavy-handed redistributionist, socialist end, to Joe Biden in the gabbling senile establishment middle. They all talk about helping the little guy. They are filled to the brim with “good intentions.” But the scare quotes are intended. What they are really all about is increasing the power of government, and hence their own power and perquisites, under cover of noble-sounding progressive nostrums.
This brings us to the core of Schweizer’s important book. “What makes so many people angry at Washington,” he notes, “is the fact that those with political power get to operate by a different set of rules than the rest of us.” That’s it in a nutshell.
As one compares the treatment accorded to Hillary Clinton, say, or Biden and his sons and brothers with the treatment accorded to General Mike Flynn or a host of other people outside the charmed circle of progressive piety, one is tempted to suggest a change to the inscription on the U.S. Supreme Court.“Equal Justice Under Law” is so out of date; “Unequal Justice Under Law” would be a more accurate slogan, one that accorded better with actual practice if not rhetoric.
Schweizer is right. Such people “use their own levers of power to protect their family and friends from the scales of justice; bail out their failing businesses; steer taxpayer money to them. When they misstep, they are excused or it is covered up. While those with little or no power have to pay for the consequences of their actions, the political class often does not. The power elite – the people who grease the wheels for themselves – are the most disconcerting and dangerous ones.”
Despite the conspiracy of silence imposed by a compliant media on these facts, the truth is leaking out bit by Biden bit. It is one reason that we now have President Donald Trump, not President Hillary Clinton. It is a reason, too, that, come January 2021, President Trump will embark on his second term. We all owe Peter Schweizer an enormous debt of gratitude for his enormous and effective labors in bringing sunlight to these tenebrous and mephitic climes.
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Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the president and publisher of Encounter Books.