The news out of Illinois this week that the state's Governor Rod Blagojevich has been charged with multiple counts of corruption is just one more chapter in a seemingly steady stream of public malfeasance allegations against elected officials.
In Boston, local politics are in an upheaval as State Senator Dianne Wilkerson and City Councillor Chuck Turner each face charges of taking bribes. On Tuesday, each was named in an additional conspiracy charge.
The Chicago charges, along with the indictments against the two Boston pols and other cases around the country, add to the impression of a "culture of corruption" among office holders. In recent years, national headlines reported the deeds of high profile Republicans including Larry Craig, Duke Cunningham, Mark Foley, Bob Ney, Don Sherwood and Ted Stevens. More recently, it's been Democrats like William Jefferson, Tim Mahoney and Charlie Rangel implicated with wrongdoing. It's not just members of the two parties - Councillor Turner is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, but a member of the Green-Rainbow party.
So it is understandable that a cynical citizenry can become enraged by these reports, even to the point of concluding that corruption is a way of life for politicians.
On CNN Tuesday night, analyst David Gergen took pains to remind viewers that the very great majority of public officeholders are people of integrity, and should not be painted with the same brush as those already accused or convicted. Mr. Gergen knows whereof he speaks: he has served as a counselor to three Presidents, and director of the Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership, and has written widely on politics and politicians.
In his book, Eyewitness to Power, he describes what he believes are the seven necessary attributes for a politician He writes, "What they must have are: inner mastery; a central, compelling purpose rooted in moral values; a capacity to persuade; skills in working within the system; a fast start; a strong, effective team; and a passion that inspires others to keep the flame alive."
The core trait for the politician must be what he describes as a "compelling purpose rooted in moral values." It is those values of high character that must define the politician. More than any other personality facet, the pol's inner compass must be forged in such a way that he/she will not be tempted by the perks of power.
As in all professions, the perquisites of the political job expand with time, and the benefits that can attach to political power can be intoxicating. But to resist them, for the politician there's a compelling prerequisite: a strong, inner core sense of ethics and responsibility, to the public, to the constituents, to the family and most especially to one self.
Too often, persons accused of wrongdoing try to rationalize their actions as "mistakes," but such excuses are feeble: they are not mistakes, they are misdeeds, and in the current cases now in the news, the alleged criminality each will be judged by a jury in a court of law.
But as to their fitness to hold public office, that judgment has long since been made. When the public trust is breached, all activities become tainted. Resignation is not an admission of guilt, but rather a promise that similar acts will not be repeated.