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Hearing Echoes of Washington Scandals

DANIEL SCHORR: Foley's folly, the sexually suggestive messages that Representative Mark Foley sent to one or more of his former Congressional pages, is only the latest manifestation of Lord Atkins's axiom that power tends to corrupt.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

NPR senior news analyst, Daniel Schorr.

SCHORR: In the case of out Congress, the corruption's of two general sorts -money and sex. The money corruption hardly needs to be spelled out. Just mention names like Duke Cunningham, Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff. Trading votes on pending pork has become a routine part of the legislative process. But the big ones are remembered, like the 1981 sting operation called Abscam, in which a senator and six representatives were caught in a trap when they thought they were being handed cash by an Arab sheikh.

In the case of scandals with sexual overtones, there was, for example, representative Wayne Hays of Ohio, exposed in 1976 as having put his mistress on his official payroll. She later admitted she couldn't type, but typing was apparently not part of her duties.

The sex linked scandal that I remember best involved Wilbur Mills, the powerful chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He was found in 1974 around a tidal basin with an Argentine striptease dancer. And like Representative Foley today, he attributed it to alcoholism. Then there was Senator Robert Packwood, in 1992 accused of sexual harassment by 10 women.

In all of these episodes, there was a sense of lawmakers, once ensconced in office by the voters, acting as though they were beyond the reach of rules meant for others, from parking in no-parking zones to making advances to 16-year-olds. There is a sense of you can't touch me, until some scandal explodes too outrageous to ignore. But if the past is any guide, power will continue to corrupt and perhaps absolutely.

This is Daniel Schorr. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Schorr
Daniel Schorr passed away on Friday, July 23, 2010. See an obituary, photo gallery and an archive of Schorr's commentaries for NPR.
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