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The Power of Values

Remember in the 2008 election when Hillary Clinton teared up and her voice broke? She said, speaking of the country but particularly of women, "I just don’t want to see us fall backwards."

I was never for a minute cynical about that. That woman understands she is standing on the shoulders of generations of women who put up with a lot worse than she faced.

Even fact-challenged pols have a core that is real as a diamond. I cannot fault people who, upon seeing that gem-like core, are willing to forgive a lot of faults that at first appeared to be deal-breakers.

Exhibit B on the same point: LBJ. Of course, he was a crook.

He went from dirt poor to patriarch of the LBJ Ranch after spending his whole life on government salaries, which in the real world are as modest as the cost of living in Washington is outrageous.

Most of us would have our tongues hanging out at the prospect of earning $174,000 a year and the idea that each bozo in the Washington circus earns that offends our daily reality. That daily reality does not include trying to maintain two homes, in the home district and the District of Columbia. This is why you see members of Congress stacking themselves in shared quarters like most of us had to do in our twenties. This is why some send their salaries home to the family and eat by grazing at high dollar parties.

A person in that circumstance who is not wealthy has plenty of options to parlay public office into personal fortune, some grey and some black. Trading money for a vote is black. Insider stock trading by Congress and congressional staffers is still technically black, but chances of prosecution have been rendered vanishingly small.

President Obama signed a law in 2012 subjecting Congress to the same insider trading rules the rest of the world is supposed to observe. The very next year, the database that would allow enforcement was abolished. It’s illegal, but good luck catching anybody. The magical stock picking record of Congress will probably remain.

More common, there are business deals where government officials become partners on the cheap. That was the root of Bill Clinton’s Whitewater not-scandal. It was smack in that grey area. My elected judgeship is really small potatoes, but I had opportunities opened to me to participate in real estate deals far beyond my level of sophistication.

It was not illegal, but for me it did not pass the smell test. Other people’s mileage may differ. How do you think Hillary Clinton made all that money trading pork bellies?

For many years, the FCC would license only one television station in Austin. Want to guess who owned that station? There are many ways to profit from public service, many of which are located in ethical grey areas. LBJ made a lot of money in a lot of businesses he did not learn about at Southwest Texas State Teachers College.

But did you think Barry Goldwater was going to sign the Voting Rights Act? If you think public service should be limited to rich people, maybe it would make sense to have to prove you can meet your obligations on the $348,000 you will get paid for serving one two year term in Congress.

In the last election, the average Democratic Congressperson raised $639,220 and spent $625,944. Republicans raised $726,060 and spent $684,443. These are averages when most races are not seriously contested because the districts are gerrymandered to avoid real elections. Tell me again why we elect so many crooks?

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Chris Christie is also a crook and, as I've said in other places, a blowhard. One of his earliest political victories came by broadcasting a bald faced lie about his opponent. Christie’s history makes it easy to see the worst in the “bridgegate” scandal, that he would cause a traffic jam on a main artery into New York to punish a small town mayor for refusing to endorse him.

But there is a video of Christie talking about addiction. He shows that he, too, has a shiny rock-hard core that commands respect even as we hope the next POTUS is less New Jersey than him, if you take my meaning.

It's not impossible to climb out of an ethical sewer. LBJ stole his elections in Duval County, Texas, which was at the time a cesspool of corruption to rival Cook County, Illinois.

Speaking of Cook County’s place in political science infamy, Barack Obama is the most honest pol I can think of who ever crawled out of the primeval swamp of Chicago politics. It does not appear that Obama enriched himself at the public trough, like LBJ, or appointed a lot of people who did, like U.S. Grant.

Neither the Clinton video nor the Christie video was shot by the campaign and in neither case was the candidate speaking for the camera. At the same time, both candidates knew they were not speaking in private, so they were knowingly opening up to strangers. Talking Points Memo posted one video to YouTube and The Huffington Post the other.

I'd like to think it's hard to run for POTUS for years without revealing something unscripted, but some pols have managed it in the past. Whether images can be totally manufactured in this time when everybody has a camera in their telephone and can publish on the Web with a keystroke remains to be seen.

Bless their hearts, you can’t blame them for trying. Everybody with an ego big enough to seek a lease on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue seeks to write his or her own script.

Ironically, it's the unscripted comments that make the candidates real and enable honest people in the opposite political trenches to understand elections as less than a holy war against one of Satan's minions.

This is what I would take to be the reason why Dr. Ben Carson was leading among one fourth of one fourth of the electorate even though he knows nothing of history or political science, the stuff of the job he seeks. His sane supporters would, I think, argue that he came by his ignorance honestly, focusing his first career on saving lives. Of course, after the attacks in Paris, Carson’s bloom in the polls faded.

Carson is also soft spoken and polite, which sets him apart from his major opponents for the outsider GOP vote, since both Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina are shrill and rude. Soft spoken is good for most candidates but it’s the price of admission for a black candidate. “No drama Obama” would never have gotten daylight under his political wheels if he allowed himself to show anger. A black Republican would sink just as quickly as a black Democrat if he came across as black and angry.

I can't disagree more with the idea good character will get you through the deep end of political science any better than it will get you though the deep end of medical science. Surely, even Dr. Carson would admit that a sweet disposition might help a brain surgeon keep a good team, but even a good team cannot rescue a surgeon who simply does not know what he is doing.

I hope this is not read as demonization or even disbelief that Dr. Carson has a hard core of values that are admirable. But if this nation is even half as sick as all of the outsider candidates claim, it requires something beyond the political science equivalent of "take two aspirins and call me in the morning."

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.