The Seven Deadly Sins of Politics

What's wrong with Clinton? Let us count the faults.


It's hard to sort out the Clinton scandals. Did Monica Lewinsky ask Webb Hubbell to buy Vernon Jordan a dress? Did Bruce Babbitt win a Tyson's chicken at an Indian casino? Did he bet with Chinese money? And what's all this about Oral Roberts?

To understand the ethics mess, skip the latest scoops. The real explanation came out some 1,400 years ago, when Pope Gregory the Great identified the Seven Deadly Sins. Gregory's list furnishes a concise guide to basic principles of contemporary politics: pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust.

Pride. Chaucer wrote that pride is the "general root of all evils." In politics, this root runs deep. Candidates exaggerate their own virtues, sometimes believing what they say. Once in office, they surround themselves with fawning staffs. Washington is to ego as Iowa is to corn: a place where abundant fertilizer promotes amazing growth.

Pride creates its own ethical logic. "I'm good," thinks the politician, "and since good people don't do bad things, then whatever I do is OK." During his "no controlling legal authority" press conference, Al Gore said: "I'm proud of what I did. I do not feel like I did anything wrong, much less illegal. I am proud to have done everything I possibly could to help support the re-election of this president and to help move his agenda forward." The agenda justifies the means.

Pride is the original sin of public policy. The "anointed," as Thomas Sowell calls them, believe that they know what's best for everybody else–hence such monstrosities as the Clinton health plan. They also think that they can divine long-range trends in economics, international relations, and even weather–hence Gore's crusade against global warming.

Prideful politicians think that they can get away with anything. When their policies fail or their misdeeds become public, they shift the blame or deny that anything has gone wrong. Sometimes these responses fail, as Presidents Johnson and Nixon discovered. Sometimes they work, which is why President Clinton survived his first term.

Envy. What do average Washingtonians want? Better job titles, bigger offices, richer perks, and more one-on-one contact with the powerful. Staffers refer to the last item as "face time." (Perhaps certain politicians offer "designated-body-part time.")

Inevitably, what everyone wants is what somebody else already has. In the White House, such envy helps explain why aides vie to catch the president's eye and fulfill his desires (including the noncarnal ones). The jostling for position includes even the lowliest ranks. According to press reports, intern Monica Lewinsky had a "coveted blue pass," which enabled her to enter the West Wing at will, while her peers labored elsewhere. No wonder some of them seemed quite eager to trash her reputation.

There is plenty of envy in the private world, but it's especially acute in politics because tangible accomplishments are so scarce. When you can't measure your achievements by the number of computers manufactured or customers served, you rate your position by the number of really cool meetings you get to attend.

Anger. Envy begets wrath. Since so much of political life hinges upon petty things, Washingtonians are hypersensitive to slights, snubs, and insults. They might not always remember the size of the national debt, but they do remember the time someone kept them waiting outside a conference room (and for how long). The ultimate example was Richard Nixon, who ended his political career as a congealed blob of resentment.

In a city of vendettas, leaks are a weapon of choice. Such leaks often come from disgruntled staffers and ex-staffers, whose ranks are legion. (Have you ever met a Washingtonian who was gruntled?) Last year, former White House aide Linda Tripp told Paula Jones's lawyers that President Clinton had made a pass at another woman. Clinton lawyer Robert Bennett then accused her of lying. Reportedly, her anger at Bennett spurred her to tape Lewinsky's phone calls.

Leaks and attacks have a profound effect on Bill and Hillary Clinton. In Affairs of State (See "A Thin Line Between Love and Hate," August/September 1997), historian Gil Troy describes their reaction: "The Clintons united in rage. Theirs was the angriest administration since Richard Nixon's." Angry people make dumb mistakes, but the Clintons have usually harnessed their anger to politically useful purposes. When Hillary Clinton complained of a "vast, right-wing conspiracy," she was venting her feelings while simultaneously providing a cue to reporters who were predisposed to believe in such things.

More often, it's Clinton's opponents who lose their heads. Consider the volcanic conservatives who prematurely called for his impeachment. Their reaction was understandable, since Clinton's slickness infuriates them. But from the standpoint of GOP political strategy, a successful effort to oust Clinton would backfire, since it would give Gore the incumbency advantage in the next presidential election.

As Nixon said as he left the White House: "Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them–and then you destroy yourself." He should know.

Sloth. Contrary to the popular myth that Washington keeps bankers' hours, people in the political community put in long days. Physical sloth is not their problem. Instead, many suffer from intellectual sloth, which sets in when they fail to rethink their assumptions. The D'Amato hearings on Whitewater and the Thompson hearings on campaign finance both embodied this kind of sloth. Each time, Republicans were expecting Watergate in reverse, where noble Republicans could take down a tainted Democratic president. Each time, they flopped.

Notwithstanding all their hard work, they failed to take account of one big thing: The other side had studied Watergate, too. The White House recognized that it could hinder investigations by providing evidence at a glacial pace, a practice called "slow-walking." Congressional Democrats remembered that Sen. Sam Ervin (D-N.C.) was effective as chair of the Watergate committee because of his reputation for probity. Accordingly, they undercut the GOP chairs, hoping to make D'Amato look like a sleazebag and Thompson a shameless self-promoter. They succeeded.

Like the people they cover, reporters also represent a strange brew of hard work and sloth. They have long toiled to cover campaign scandals and the legislative proposals designed to prevent them. At the same time, they have seldom questioned the premise of campaign finance "reform," namely, that more red tape will produce a "cleaner" and more democratic process.

Avarice. No one can take money out of politics as long as people can make money by influencing public policy. With its wide array of rules and programs, contemporary government offers economic interests opportunities to gain subsidies, monopolies, and other advantages. When Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) asked high-rolling contributor Roger Tamraz if one of the reasons for his donations was to gain access to the White House, he responded: "Senator, I am going even further; it is the only reason."

Even in a rural state such as Arkansas, a governor can be a helpful friend or a troublesome foe. That's why some colorful characters took an early interest in the financial well-being of the Clinton family. The fruit of this interest, of course, is the ongoing Whitewater controversy. And if it were not for Whitewater, Kenneth Starr would not hold the post of independent counsel, and there would have been no federal investigation of Monica Lewinsky's statements.

Gluttony. In its literal meaning, gluttony is not part of the Clinton scandals. Washington has become a nonfat yogurt kind of town, and in 1997, the president got into the act by curbing his appetite for rich foods.

In a metaphorical sense, however, gluttony does play a role. When the media find a hot new scandal, they engage in what political scientist Larry Sabato calls a "feeding frenzy." For a brief period, they compete with one another to gobble up all available bits of information, misinformation, and disinformation. Rather than digesting it carefully, they swallow it whole, often with disastrous results. When the pig-out is over, they feel nausea and shame, and they swear not to do it again.

In their remorse, they may leave some good food on the table; that is, they may overlook credible leads that take time and study to develop. In each of the Clinton scandals, serious questions lingered long after the initial frenzy came to an end.

Lust. This one doesn't require any explanation, except that the connection of sex and power didn't start with Clinton's inauguration. It goes all the way back to King David, who had an illicit affair and tried to cover it up. Bathshebagate broke because of a whistle-blower named Nathan, who shamed David into an apology.

God had warned that there would be days like this. As David Boaz wrote in Libertarianism: A Primer, the First Book of Samuel contains an early explanation of the need for limited government. When the people prayed for a king, God answered that abuse and tyranny would ultimately follow.

Like the rest of us, those in power are vulnerable to the Seven Deadly Sins. "If men were angels, no government would be necessary," wrote James Madison. "If angels were to govern men, neither internal nor external controls would be necessary." Angels are pretty scarce in the political world. That's why the framers of the Constitution built a system of separated powers, ensuring that a wayward president would eventually crash into judges, juries, and congressional investigations. The system can get pretty ugly at times, but as Madison asked, "What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?"

Contributing Editor John J. Pitney Jr. (jpitney@mckenna.edu) is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.