Eight years ago, Ray Nagin was the popular mayor of New Orleans who rallied the city after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. Now, Nagin is headed to federal prison after a jury convicted him on 20 charges of corruption. He accepted at least $200,000 from contractors who wanted the lucrative post-Katrina rebuilding contracts. Nagin’s sentence could be as long as 20 years, and though $200,000 is not a meager sum, neither is it worth a long jail sentence.
A similar story is playing out in Virginia, where ex-Governor Bob McDonnell has gone from being a potential presidential candidate to a likely prison inmate. He and his wife were recently indicted for accepting luxurious gifts and over $120,000 from a campaign donor who also did business with the state. The McDonnell’s bribes can be neatly divided by gender stereotypes. The First Lady wanted an Oscar de la Renta dress, while the Governor wanted new golf clubs and tickets to sporting events.
Public corruption is nothing new, and it’s far less rampant since the glory days of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. America today has strict ethics laws and harsh penalties for those who break them. Yet, like clockwork, every few months there is another story of a politician who tried to cash in on elected office. Sometimes the charges were a surprise, like with Governor McDonnell, whose sincere religiosity and clean record made even his critics think he was a paragon of ethics. Other times, the only surprise is that the charges didn’t come sooner, like with Illinois’ Rod Blagojevich, who was widely considered corrupt even before his indictment for trying to sell a vacant Senate seat.
For politicians who aren’t independently wealthy, seeing the lifestyles enjoyed by donors can cause bitter envy. The McDonnells certainly fell victim to their insecurities, entering the governor’s mansion deeply in debt but refusing to compromise the lifestyle they felt a public figure should lead. Ray Nagin gave up a job as a cable company executive and didn’t enjoy the financial limits his lower salary caused. These politicians usually don’t feel they’re doing anything wrong, just living the life an important person ought to live.
Other elected officials steal because pettiness is just part of who they are. By the time he was Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Johnson had amassed a multi-million dollar fortune through rigged real estate deals and owning a lucrative radio station. Yet Johnson continued to shakedown business people for big gifts like farmland, and small gifts like a new coat. Extracting tribute was just like manipulating other politicians – akin to breathing for the venal yet brilliant LBJ.
Politicians steal for different reasons, but the same traits that lead them to run for high office let them think they can get away with their crimes. Most high-level politicians are proven winners with big egos, and assume they can pull off an effective crime just as easily as an effective campaign. Some even manage to get away with it, like San Francisco’s Willie Brown, famous for wearing $6000 suits and driving luxury cars on a mayor’s salary. But for every Willie Brown enjoying retirement and a gig as an MSNBC contributor, there are dozens of ex-politicians eating bad food in federal prison and asking themselves: “Was it worth it?”