We Don't Expect Politicians to be Honest

When we read about the accumulated wealth of our leaders most of us simply shrug. Accumulated wealth after a lifetime spent in public service is now taken as a given. I think of the Hasterts, the Pelosis ($34 million or so), Harry Reid ($10 million), Ted Stevens, and of course we can't forget the Clintons. Prosecution of our ruling class for violations of ordinary laws (which the rest of us must live by) is almost nonexistent. We tend to accept that there are two classes in America: our nobility, who are not to be judged by ordinary standards, and then everyone else. We have become, in that regard, divided like Bourbon France.

But once in a while I remember a different America, and a different set of rules.

Sam Rayburn was in Congress for almost 49 years, 17 of them as speaker -- speaker during the years of FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower. Speaker during World War II. Nowadays people hear that and think: World War II -- imagine the number of government contracts that were let! What incredible opportunities there must have been for a little acceptable graft! No one would be surprised -- or much upset -- if Rayburn had finished out his life with a nice bundle stashed away somewhere.

Lyndon Johnson, a rough contemporary, is estimated to have had as much as $100 million at the time of his death.

It comes as a major shock, then, to learn that Speaker Rayburn had only $26,000 in cash in various accounts when he died. In his civilian life he was a Texas rancher. His various acreages put together were valued at around $300,000. He also owned some old pickup trucks (one valued at $100) and other antiquated (not new) farm equipment.

Rayburn was a man at whose house Diogenes might have put down his lantern and settled in to stay. His honesty was a byword. When he went on congressional junkets, he paid his own travel expenses. He refused payment for work from companies when they had an issue before the legislature.

...I said to him that I was a member of the Legislature . . . and that my experience had taught me that men who represent the people should be as far removed as possible from concerns whose interests he was liable to be called on to legislate concerning, and that on that ground I would not accept a dollar of the railroad's money, though I was legally entitled to it. I never did take a dollar of it. I have been guided by the principle in all my dealings. (H.G. Dulaney & Edward Hake Phillips, Speak, Mr. Speaker 20 (1978)

When a businessman privately delivered a valuable horse to his property, he returned the horse. 

We would search hard to find that kind of concept of public service today.

And even worse, we no longer expect to find it. We are content if our heroes and standard bearers engage in only a moderate amount of corruption -- if they pile up only a few trifling millions. That goes with the territory, with being part of the ruling elite.

We accept that's the best we can hope for.

If a man puts in the years of service that Sam Rayburn did, and emerges with less than half a million, we think him a fool, not a hero.

And that's a pity.