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Crashing WatergateGate

Russ Baker

May 08, 2006

Investigative reporter and essayist Russ Baker  is a longtime contributor to He is also the founder of the Real News Project , a new not-for-profit investigative journalism outlet. He can be reached at

We knew this was big back in March, when a court sent ex-Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif.—convicted of taking $2.4 million in bribes from military contractors—off to serve eight years in prison, the most severe sentence ever handed out to a member of Congress. From then on, the sleaze chain has been metastasizing. More members of the House might be implicated—and even top CIA officials. Now it is being described as the largest federal corruption scandal in a century. With stories of prostitutes and all-night poker games at the Watergate hotel, it is one scandal that truly is deserving of the "-gate" suffix that has become such a dreary journalistic cliché.

No matter how big the affair grows, though, it is likely to follow in the path of so many of its predecessors—distracting public attention from a larger and more important reality: Today, “the largest corruption scandal in a century” is not WatergateGate—it is the everyday performance of the U.S. government. The worst sleaze in Washington is mainly legal, as the old saying goes; and that includes the sorry state of the entire intelligence apparatus—beyond whether the #3 CIA official improperly participated  in those late-night, high-stakes card games.

Too many in the media treat a juicy mess like the Cunningham Affair as a shocking aberration. Consider the wording in a New York Times article on Sunday, which described “a growing suspicion among some lawmakers that corrupt practices may have influenced decision-making in Congress and at executive-branch agencies.”

Who would have thought? Don’t the editors read their own paper? It’s been clear for some time that corruption in the Bush administration has exceeded a Washington standard that already was pretty tawdry. Some of the stories are known already, especially to readers: White House procurement chief taken out in handcuffs in connection with a sprawling lobbying corruption investigation; the vice president’s chief of staff indicted for perjury; the unseemly setup between Bush’s first FEMA director and Brownie, the incompetent neophyte who replaced him.

But many of the larger misdeeds have gone unreported, in part because—technically illegal or not—they represent business as usual in Republican Washington today. Virtually every federal agency is now captive to the corporate interests it is supposed to regulate. The reach of corporate influence has even compromised the science agencies on whose fact-finding and truth-telling crucial questions of national safety and even survival depend.

And then there is Congress. A quick comparison of committee activity and floor votes with campaign finance reports tells the story. Never mind the now-controversial “earmarks,” in which legislators secretly slip goodies at the last minute into larger bill packages. The real scandal is going on in plain sight. The entities that give the most get the most—and the goodies keep on coming. That outfits like Halliburton  can survive a never-ending series of contracting horror shows with their federal contacts intact says a lot about Congress’s willful abrogation of fiduciary duty on behalf of the taxpayer.

The main mistake Randy Cunningham made was accepting the goodies while he was still in Congress. There is no crime involved in doing the exact same favors for government contractors, and later joining the company’s board or getting hired as a highly-paid lobbyist, or getting payback on a more indirect basis. That’s the deal all over town, and some of the most “well-respected” names in America have such arrangements—and not all of them are Republicans. The whole thing stinks, but what to do about it? That’s the rub.

Speaking of a rub, besides the careless greed, in the Cunningham Caper we are blessed by the emergence of a sexual angle worthy of a British tabloid, with the congressman alleged to have enjoyed the favors of big-league prostitutes in return for military contracts. Sexual peccadilloes always get the public’s attention in a way that other misdeeds, like accepting bribes from defense contractors, cannot. That Cunningham and his buddies may have preferred presumably-discreet professional company over out-of-wedlock friends of the Gennifer Flowers ilk, makes perfect sense in an atmosphere where holier-than-thou sanctimony cannot bear scrutiny. That might take the story to a new level, since these sins would have been committed by the staunchest defenders of the "sanctity of marriage."

Those who care about the ever more brazen sellout of the public interest over the last five years have no choice but to take these revelations in whatever garb they come—and if they’re scantily clad, so be it. Meanwhile, consorting with prostitutes—the thing that will get perhaps get the most attention—is the one thing that matters least to the future of our body politic.

With this new WatergateGate, we must at all costs beware the Woodward Fallacy—that sanitation is a substitute for politics and ideas. It is the conceit of the reigning elite. But in fact we can get rid of Cunningham and his cronies and the rot will continue, unless change goes much deeper to the root.



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