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A longtime reader from northeast Ohio wrote recently to compliment our editorial gifts at predicting the future. “I enjoy reading back issues of WORLD,” she said, “and have been impressed many times by your uncanny ability to ‘see’ ahead, relying on your inspired hunches.”
To this very kind and overly generous friend, let me first say thank you for her note of encouragement. It came right on the heels of a handful of especially harsh letters from a little band of very unhappy WORLD members.
But second, I have to stress that we have no specific formulas here for describing what’s going to happen in the years ahead.
The column my new Ohio friend was referencing focused on the tendency of all leaders to abuse the power they gain. The more secure a leader becomes, the sooner he or she typically tumbles into dishonest and crooked behavior. That particular column came halfway through the administration of Barack Obama, with special attention to that team’s calculated abuse of political power in the Internal Revenue Service (see “Rotten to the core?,” June 15, 2013).
Because she was reading a 5-year-old essay, the perspective seemed prescient. But when I sit here and predict dishonesty and corruption in government, I’m betting on an almost sure thing. It doesn’t take any special insight to suggest that the next set of leaders will also be surrounded by scandal. Ever since the Watergate crisis of the 1970s, we’ve been nudged closer and closer to thinking it’s altogether normal to ask, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” We asked it, of course, about the Clintons and their Arkansas investments. We asked what George W. Bush really knew about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And what did Barack Obama know about Hillary Clinton’s pressure tactics while developing a huge funding base for the Clinton Foundation?
In brief, we don’t really trust our government anymore. More and more, we are skeptics. And the parade of faces and names on the nightly news of those who are charging or being charged, suing or being sued, indicting or being indicted, just keeps growing. But what if, in our fierce search for wrongdoers, we discover something worse than mere complicity either at the top or in the vast rolls of “civil servants” and “staff experts”?
It doesn’t take any special insight to suggest that the next set of leaders will also be surrounded by scandal.
Here’s what is worse—and maybe much worse. What if the whole government structure is so bad, so universally rotten to the core, that the honchos at the top don’t even have to issue perverse orders? What if the inclination to abuse power is so thorough that it’s just an expected modus operandi? What if no one has to tell a third-level operative in the Justice Department that the way to move ahead is to hack someone else’s cell phone? What if everyone “up there” comes to understand that cover-up trumps truth-telling—and -cover-up becomes a habit?
Still worse: What if all that has already happened?
So now we’re no longer talking, as Richard Nixon’s attorney John Dean did, about “a cancer on the presidency.” Now we have to talk instead about “a cancer on the whole government.” And which do you suppose is easier to treat?
But hold on. There may be something more troublesome yet. I think this is what my reader friend in Ohio maybe had in view. There may be a scenario a thousand times more to be feared than a disease-ridden government. That situation comes when the people being governed no longer own the kind of moral compass that helps them judge between good and evil. That may be because they simply no longer care, and have become numb to such distinctions. Or it may be because they have always been taught that all morality is relative—and out of conviction they simply aren’t ready to pass judgment on others.
It was a shrewd observer who, sizing up the realities of the world, said that “people usually get the kind of leaders they deserve.” So should I be warning my reader friend in Ohio that we have no secret formula for writing about future governments? We just look around and try to size up the neighbors we have right now.