Corruption is uniquely reprehensible in a democracy because it violates the system's first principle, which we all learned back in the sunshiny days of elementary school: that the government exists to serve the public , not particular individuals. We Are the Government, insisted the title of a civics primer published in the earnest year of 1945.
"The White House belongs to you," its dust jacket told us. "So do all the other splendid buildings in Washington, D.C." This idea runs so deep in the American grain that many of us can't bring ourselves to question it, even in this disillusioned age. Republicans and Democrats may fight over how big government should be and exactly what it should do, we tell ourselves, but surely everyone shares those baseline good intentions, that simple devotion to the public interest.
We continue to believe this despite such massive evidence to the contrary as the career of Jack Abramoff, the conservative lobbyist whose feats of corruption have been unreeling in newspaper and congressional investigations for years. On January 3, 2006, Abramoff pled guilty to bribing a member of Congress, evading taxes, and defrauding his clients, but what made his case memorable were the incredible details: the millions of dollars Abramoff and his confederates casually squeezed out of clients, the luxury restaurant he opened in order to hand out the goodies more efficiently, the golf trips to Scotland, the gleeful contempt he expressed for nearly everyone in his voluminous emails, and, later, the desperate wriggling of prominent Republicans as they tried to deny their old pal.
Journalistic coverage of the Abramoff affair has clung reliably to the "bad apple" thesis, in which the lobbyist's sins are carefully separated from the movement of which he was once a prominent part. What Abramoff represented, we read, was "greed gone wild." He "went native." He was "sui generis," a one-of-a-kind con man, "engaged in bizarre antics that your average Zegna-clad Washington lobbyist would never have dreamed of."