Barney Frank as Madame Defarge

Mona Charen

3/20/2009 12:01:00 AM - Mona Charen

"It is an easy and vulgar thing to please the mob … but to improve them is a work fraught with difficulty, and teeming with danger." -- Charles Caleb Colton

"The mob is the mother of tyrants." -- Diogenes

Shamelessness is the order of the day. If I were an AIG executive entitled by law to a large "retention" bonus negotiated before the taxpayers had bailed out my company, I hope I would have the decency to refuse it. Reward for a job well done in the private sector is one thing. Suckling from the government sow is another. And it is particularly galling to reward mismanagement!

Accepting all of the above as fact (and it is not entirely clear, as of this writing, whether the executives receiving bonuses are the same ones who got the company into trouble), it would be difficult for even the worst banking or insurance executive to outshine our elected officials when it comes to shamelessness. Our elected officials may have no idea how to extricate the economy from its economic decline, but they sure know how to stage a show trial.

It would be nice if just every once in a while, maybe just to keep us off-balance, the good members would make at least a pretense of caring about solving the nation's problems. There is surely enough blame to go around in this financial mess: bankers who made bad judgments about loans, Wall Street firms who negligently packaged securities of unknown worth, and individuals who made unwise investments based on the foolish assumption that real estate prices could only continue to rise. But certainly the malfeasance of politicians is near the top of any list. Politicians a) encouraged (to the point of bullying) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to make dubious loans; b) resisted regulation of those same GSEs; and c) have spent taxpayers' money wildly and irresponsibly, setting us up for even more frightening economic calamities down the road.

It starts at the top. President Obama played his sleight of hand game of seeming to do something while actually doing its opposite. On the campaign trail (er, sorry, on a presidential swing to California), Obama tried to distance himself from the blame game in Washington. "I know Washington's all in a tizzy and everybody's pointing fingers at each other saying it's all their fault, the Democrats' fault, the Republicans' fault. Listen, I'll take responsibility. I'm the president." This was met by cheers. But then the president added, "We didn't draft these contracts. We've got a lot on our plate…" So he isn't really taking responsibility, he's evading it.

Meanwhile, Rep. Barney Frank played Madame Defarge on Capitol Hill. AIG's recently installed CEO, Edward Liddy, agreed to testify before a subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee, which Frank chairs. Liddy was actually a poor choice for scapegoat as he has only been on the job since September. Additionally, he is serving as a dollar-a-year man hoping to rescue the company and our financial system from a downward spiral.

These facts slowed the momentum of some committee members. But most plowed ahead. Here's Rep. Gary Ackerman of New York: "There's a tidal wave of rage throughout America right now, and it's building up and it's expressing itself at this latest outrage, which is really just the tip of the iceberg. And that rage is because the taxpayer knows that they are the ultimate sucker on the list of who pays for all of the greed that has been going on in the marketplace for years and years."

There was a lot more along those lines, but the most sinister move came from Frank. He demanded that Liddy reveal the names of the 73 executives who had received retention bonuses. Liddy said he would do so if he could receive a promise of confidentiality. Frank refused and threatened to subpoena the names. Liddy said if subpoenaed he would obey the law, but he then read to the committee some of the death threats his company had been getting over the past few days. Some threats spoke of hanging the executives with piano wire, others of finding where their kids went to school.

That is the sort of ugliness and criminality that Frank is willing tacitly to encourage by demanding the names. And for what? The bonuses amounted to just one tenth of 1 percent of the AIG bailout (to say nothing of the stimulus bill and the gargantuan budget bill Congress and the president are hanging around our necks). If politicians want to metaphorically flay away at evil businessmen, well, that's regrettable. But when they cross the line into encouraging the targeting of actual individuals, they are no longer "honorable gentlemen," but leaders of a mob.