Ken Connor
The latest political scandal involving Illinois Governor Blagojevich comes as no surprise.  In recent years, Americans have been inundated with scandal after scandal.  They have become commonplace—a simple fact of political life.  What's one more governor looking for a kickback for his official decisions?  The idea of an altruistic politician has become almost laughable.  In most people's minds, politicians rank somewhere between TV evangelists and used car salesmen. 

The crimes the Illinois Governor stands accused of are classic.  He has the legal power to appoint a new candidate to fill Barack Obama's now-vacant seat in the U.S. Senate.  Rather than doing the honorable thing and appointing the best possible leader, Democratic Governor Blagojevich allegedly offered the seat to the highest bidder.  He tried to pitch it to the Obama camp, promising to appoint the candidate of their choosing if they would offer him the position of Secretary of Health and Human Services, or an ambassadorship, or put his wife on a few major corporate boards.  When the Obama team failed to take the bait, Blagojevich was irate.  He was recorded saying that the Senate seat "is a [expletive] valuable thing, you just don't give it away for nothing."

This corruption is not new to Illinois.  The previous Governor, Republican George Ryan, was caught selling government contracts, licenses, and leases to political friends in return for money and vacations.  He is currently serving a six-and-a-half year sentence.

Nor is corruption limited to Illinois.  In our nation's halls of power, corruption runs rampant, lying just beneath the thin veneer of respectability accorded to political office.  Regrettably, many of today's political leaders are doing very little to win or maintain our respect.  Too many have proven themselves to be all to willing to violate the ethical standards of their offices for their own personal gain.

Among these tainted politicians is former Republican Senator Ted Stevens, who was recently convicted of receiving more than $250,000 in home improvements, mysteriously free of charge.  Then there's former Republican Congressman Randall "Duke" Cunningham who resigned his House seat in 2005 after pleading guilty to a long list of criminal charges including bribery, mail and wire fraud, and tax evasion.

Of course, there's plenty of dirt to go around.  The Democrats have had more than their share of corruption in recent years.  Democratic Senator Chris Dodd, Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, pushed through housing bailout legislation in June to help mortgage lenders, including Countrywide.  Interestingly, Senator Dodd has had dealings with Countrywide for years.  He is suspected of getting a below-market rate when he refinanced his mortgages with the lender, and Countrywide has given Dodd more than $21,000 in campaign donations since 1997.

As yet another example, Democratic Representative Charles Rangel rented several apartments in New York at about half of the regular asking price in the neighborhood.  The owner of the building, Olnick Organization, also donated thousands of dollars to Rangel's campaign fund.

These stories should shock us, but they have become so commonplace that we hardly bat an eye.  The truth is that most people assume every politician is in politics for their own gain.  The idea of a true public servant has fallen by the wayside. 

Our first President, George Washington, exemplified the character of leadership all politicians should seek.  He initially declined the large salary offered to him by Congress, he dismissed all laudatory titles, and he refused to remain President for a third term.  This kind of public service is a long way from the kind of money-grubbing corruption that characterizes much of modern day political life.  Unselfishness, humility, and virtue are not attributes that come to mind when we think of today's politicians.

Perhaps the ubiquity of political corruption is not the fault of shady politicians only.  After all, politicians are elected by the people.  And since ours is a "representative" government perhaps it's time we asked ourselves whether the character of our leaders is representative of the character of our nation? 

After all, here in America, the people—not the politicians—set the standards of acceptable conduct in political life.  We, the people, decide who to elect and to reelect.  If politicians do not meet the expectations of the people, they will lose their position, and even the most corrupt politician wants to keep his office.  In the final analysis, we, the people, are responsible for the corruption of our leaders by failing to demand a higher standard of conduct from our politicians.

Increasingly, Americans have grown accustomed to a culture characterized by moral relativism and individualism.  We have mocked Judeo-Christian values—humility, virtue, honor—and in the process, eroded restraints on social conduct. The results have become painfully obvious in the business arena and are becoming increasingly obvious in the political arena.  When we do not demand honor, virtue, and accountability from ourselves, can we really expect more from our leaders?  Have we merely gotten the leaders we deserve?

The path to reform in the political arena runs straight through the people.  We, the people, must first find a renewed appreciation for virtue, honesty, and humility in ourselves and our fellow man.  If private virtue is reestablished in society, it will eventually become public and inevitably find its way back to the halls of government. Quite simply, it is up to us.  If we, the people, demand more of ourselves—if we hold ourselves and each other accountable for our actions—then the character of politics and society will inevitably change for the better.  And, that's change you can depend on.

Ken Connor

Ken Connor is Chairman of the Center for a Just Society in Washington, DC.