Dana Milbank’s Washington Post column today is more of a trend-spotter than a policy analysis, noting that the Republican “Class of ‘94” that stormed in during Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution seems to have more sex scandals than most. “No fewer than 15 of the 73 elected in the landslide that year,” Milbank writes, “have entertained the nation with flaps that include messy divorces and a suspicious car accident.” In other words, the Class of ’94 is bringing career-destroying sexy back. But did it ever leave?
“With each passing year, the class notes for the famous House Republicans Class of ’94 get more lurid,” he argues. Using yesterday’s Mark Souder scandal as a launch point, Milbank cites Mark Foley, Mark Sanford (who won election to the House of Representatives in 1994), and John Ensign as examples. He even throws in a couple of Congressmen involved in the Jack Abramoff scandal to add to the 15/73 number, though the closest thing to lewd conduct in that affair was the signature fedora Abramoff decided to don to court. He also takes a jab at former Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr for, well, being “socially libertarian.” When he tries to explain the why behind the scandals, however, he only focuses on sex scandals and uses logic that can apply to the political career of someone from any ideological background:
Yet millions of people live in the Washington area, and relatively few of us have adulterous relationships with married subordinates we have hired to assist us in broadcasts for Christian media outlets. That, and not this town’s “poisonous environment,” is why Souder is resigning.
Perhaps the problem is that lawmakers are spending too little time in Washington. In the old days, they moved their families here; now they jet back and forth and focus on raising campaign money, straining marriages. That reality, combined with the sense of invincibility many lawmakers acquire, has ensnared more than a few of Souder’s classmates — most of whom came to town with a “family values” message.
Milbank leaves the analysis open-ended, however, since he only gives that number in absolute terms. 15 out of 73—about 21%, one in every five politicians—doesn’t seem alarming, but rather par for the course for any other collection of politicians. I’ll admit that my perspective might be skewed from a lifetime in New Jersey, where we long for the righteous days of Jim McGreevey, but think of five names of any American public officials, and chances are at least one of them will be Rod Blagojevich or Larry Craig, or any politician with a sullied name. While part of this is publicity, some percentage of it must also be sheer number of corrupt politicians, from the days of the Teapot Dome Scandal to the rise and fall of Monica Lewinsky.
Centuries of political scandal have still not satiated the media’s interest in the topic, nor has it suppressed the desire to make it appear as if corruption werer a trend rather than a fact of life. Take, for example, the corruption “trend” of late 2009. To celebrate (?) the release of former Ohio Congressman and current Ohio Congressional candidate James Traficant from jail, Newsweek’s “The Gaggle” blog officially declared that “Suddenly, Disgraced Politicians Are Cool Again” in September 2009. For some reason, it was Traficant’s release from jail that made corruption a fashion statement, not the previous Year in Blago or the New Jersey arrests of 44 suspects in a corruption raid in July 2009 that stripped the town of Hoboken of it’s three-week-old mayor. It even ignored the fact that Traficant, a proto-Blago of sorts (hair and all), and his shenanigans had not been making news for years before he was released from jail.
Milbank is absolutely correct in noting that there is something “lurid” about the Congressional Class of 1994. There is something “lurid” about a number of all politicians in every capacity. In artificially extracting the history of the 1994 Congressional Republicans from the long-term political narrative, he fails to note that moral and legal corruption are not by nature just their problem, but an issues Americans have consistently dealt with for centuries.
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