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Why Aren't the Ablest in Politics?


Washington -- Millions of Americans are saying they want no more of George Bush and none of Bill Clinton, and tolerate talk of H. Ross Perot as president only because he's neither Bush nor Clinton.

I hear people moan and grouse about the "progress" of going from a choice of "the lesser of two evils" to "the least of three evils."

But I don't hear many people talking about why so many citizens they regard as able and honorable have refused to run for the presidency -- or any other public office.

I think most of our real leaders don't want the hassle of performing public service in an era of burdensome ethics and financial disclosure regulations. Plus, the news media probe into the most private corners of a candidate's personal life.

I'd say, "So let 'em stay where they are," if our disclosure rules were clearly giving us better public officials who are less inclined to corruption. But the tragedy is that the ethics and campaign-financing laws have not diminished the number of crooks who come to Washington. They have, in fact, made cheats of corporation and union bosses who use every campaign-financing loophole imaginable to empower their friends and cronies.

Influence peddling is supposed to be a crime in this town. Yet, Tuesday night we saw one of the most disgusting orgies of influence-buying imaginable, when fat cats expecting later favors gave $9 million to help keep President Bush and other Republicans in office. Some at this gala who don't expect special favors were there because they had the squeeze put on them by GOP operatives, including a former criminal.

Unions and companies that like Democrats also evade bans and limits on political gifts by coercing members and employees to "bundle" contributions.

While this dishonesty pervades our electoral process, we accept the fiction that we can bar all but honest men from public office by requiring candidates to make public their income tax forms, or to make "rough" declarations of their net worth. All this has done is give a moment of voyeurism to those who are nosy about the income of others ("Did you see what John McLaughlin was paying Pat Buchanan to be on the gong show?").

But there is nothing in any of these "revelations" of income and its sources that tells us how honest the candidate would be.

Talented people with nothing unlawful or immoral to hide simply don't want public office enough to put all their personal and family business in the streets for neighbors, competitors and others to see and gossip about.

If people of vigor and vision say "no way" to politics, we wind up mostly with people who are so hungry for power and glory that they'll gamble that they can survive probes into their past or damaging predictions of their future conduct.

At first it might appear to be a terrible step backward to advocate walking away from "full disclosure" by political candidates. But we've never gotten full disclosure. All we've done is put public offices more in the hands of rules evaders, loophole artists and utterly arrogant characters such as those who peddled $9 million worth of influence Tuesday night.

Meanwhile, we're saddled with more official corruption than at any time in the nation's history.

We have some serious thinking to do about what we exact from people whom we'd like to see in public service.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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