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Jewish World Review August 29, 2001 / 10 Elul 5761

Don Feder

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Consumer Reports

Condit a creature of the system -- EVEN if you've maxed out on commentary about the congressman and the missing intern, or were grossed out by last week's comeback tour, read on. Gary Condit is more than a bad man. He's a man who exemplifies Washington power politics -- those attracted to it and shaped by it.

In his interview with Connie Chung on ABC's "PrimeTime Thursday," the man from Modesto confirmed the general impression that he's sleazy, shifty and arrogant. Did you have a sexual relationship with Chandra Levy, Congressman? "Out of respect for my family ... I think it's best that I not get into those details." Married men who respect their families don't get into bed with 22-year-olds.

Did you mislead the police about the affair? "Um, I told them everything they asked." Translation: They didn't ask the right questions, and I wasn't about to volunteer information.

Condit is a creature of the Beltway culture, not known for producing many philanthropists and humanitarians. He illustrates a fact of life: People who go into politics are attracted to power and, once they have it, none too particular about how they use it.

Condit first won elective office the year he graduated from college. For the next three decades, he climbed the power ladder rung by rung, being successively elected a city councilman, mayor, county supervisor, state assemblyman and finally a congressman, a position he's held for 13 years.

Apparently, his last real job was delivering newspapers on a bicycle. As a congressman, his annual haul is $145,100 -- more than all but a handful of his constituents. If he leaves Congress in 2003, he will receive lifetime pension benefits estimated at $758,876.

Prior to his national exposure, wherever he went in his district he was idolized by the credulous. After all, was he not a member of the most powerful deliberative body in the world and a dedicated public servant who worked tirelessly for the welfare of his constituents?

Once in office, and barring conviction for a capital offense, the average congressman can serve for life. In 1998 and 2000, the incumbent re-election rate for House members exceeded 98 percent.

Lobbyists court them. Media run to them for analyses of the issues of the day. Impressionable young women are, well, impressed by them, leading to relationships the dedicated public servants can't describe on national television -- out of respect for their families. Some even get to ride on Air Force One and have opportunities for scores that grifters envy.

In his book "Parliament of Whores," P.J. O'Rouke wrote that if candidates were candid, they'd tell voters, "Please elect me to Congress so that I can get out of the Midwest and meet bigwigs and cute babes."

Mark Twain said America has no native criminal class "with the possible exception of Congress." Members of the august body seem intent on confirming his judgment.

In 1999, 71 then serving in Congress had credit ratings so bad they couldn't get an American Express card on their own; 29 had been accused of spousal abuse in criminal or civil proceedings; and 27 had drunk-driving arrests.

In the past 20 years, members have been convicted of or disciplined by the House Ethics Committee for: accepting bribes from undercover FBI agents posing as Arab businessmen, having sex with underage congressional pages, sexual harassment, racketeering, tax evasion, writing bad checks, kickback schemes with staff, living with a male hooker who ran a prostitution service out of the legislator's apartment, soliciting sex from a minor, corrupting a minor, obstruction of justice, influence-peddling, perjury and embezzlement.

Gary Condit is a symptom of the problem. The problem is we elect congressmen for life. The problem is we pay them too damn much, give them lavish benefits and treat them like royalty. The problem is we rarely hold them accountable. The problem is we believe the campaign drivel that they have our best interests at heart.

The framers of the Constitution intended service in Congress to be just that -- a service undertaken out of a sense of civic duty and for a limited time. Instead, most members serve their own egos and appetites. To paraphrase Lord Acton: Power corrupts. Extended service in Congress corrupts absolutely.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest books are Who is afraid of the Religious Right? ($15.95) and A Jewish conservative looks at pagan America ($9.95). To receive an autographed copy, send a check or money order to: Don Feder, The Boston Herald, 1 Herald Sq., Boston, Mass. 02106. Doing so will help fund JWR, if so noted. He is also available as a guest speaker. To comment on this column please click here.

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© 2001, Creators Syndicate