Posts Tagged ‘Michael Gerson’


June 6, 2019

I first encountered corruption when I lived in Kenya. Bribes were common in ordinary life—like if you were stopped by traffic police, or you wanted to get a passport. At that time, there was a way to get out of bribes—by offering your Christian testimony. Born-again Christians, it was well known, would not bribe. I once used this when a police officer harassed me for (he said) mis-parking at the airport. He clearly angled for a bribe, but I stymied him by telling him I loved the Lord Jesus Christ, who was my personal Savior. The cop, somewhat startled, let me go.

Sadly, I’m told, that ploy no longer works in Kenya. If you don’t want to offer a little “tea” you can be put into very uncomfortable quarters. My friend Wachira has written about his refusal to cooperate with the police in bribing, which has cost him dearly.

Of course, small stuff with police and customs officials was matched by big stuff: government contracts, such as the one rewarding a corporation for gold mining with payments of millions of dollars, the only problem being that no gold was being mined. The economy was regularly robbed by the people running the government—and their friends.

During my time in Kenya (1978-1982) I had the very strong impression that most westerners involved with aid and government relations thought corruption was an unimportant factor in the country’s problems. It never made the list of priorities. It was treated with an indulgent smile, as though to say, “Well, this is Africa. What do you expect?”

I never bought that. The more I saw, the more convinced I became that unless Kenya put a stop to corruption, it would suffer economically and in every other way.

Nowadays that laissez-faire stance has changed in development circles. Experts talk about “governance,” more or less a code word for “corruption.” Good governance is often perceived to be the foundation for all that goes well or badly in developing countries. I think that’s approximately right. Corruption corrupts everything: health care, education, finance, road repair, business, the law. Nothing is true and straight in a country where corruption is rampant. Nothing can go well for long.

What experts haven’t figured out in the slightest is how to do away with corruption. Believe me, people have tried with all kind of bureaucratic solutions. They’ve staffed the offending country’s treasury department with accountants from Belgium. No dice. The crooks are cleverer than the accountants.

During my time in Kenya I presumed that corruption was not a problem in the US. Of course I knew that there were crooks everywhere, but I didn’t perceive a culture of corruption, where crooks never got caught, and their schemes were consequence-free. Probably I was naïve. All the same, I never dreamed that we would contemplate an administration in Washington so thoroughly averse to the law and to morality as our present one. Michael Gerson, George W. Bush’s presidential speechwriter, wrote an excellent column about it in the Washington Post. It’s worth reading. He quotes William Bennett, writing in the Clinton years: “No great civilization — none — has ever been judged great because of wealth alone,” argued Bennett. “. . . If we have full employment and greater economic growth — if we have cities of gold and alabaster — but our children have not learned to walk in goodness, justice and mercy, then the American experiment, no matter how gilded, will have failed. A strong economy is a good thing. But it is far from everything….A president whose character manifests itself in patterns of reckless personal conduct, deceit, abuse of power and contempt for the rule of law cannot be a good president.”

A large number of Americans, many of them Christians, respond to indictments  of the Trump administration with a shrug. “It’s Washington! What do you expect?” They remind me of what I heard in Kenya, forty years ago.

The problem goes far deeper than the Trump administration, though. Money has always played an important role in politics, but these days it dominates every politician’s time and attention. Senators of the United States spend hours each day dialing for dollars, like salespeople hawking cheap life insurance over the phone. Their schedules are packed with rich people and industry representatives who donate significant money to their campaigns. If you want to meet your representative for a substantive discussion of policy, you have to start by giving money—lots of it. It’s not exactly bribery, but it’s something close to it.

“It’s Washington! What do you expect?” I think we should expect more.

How Did We Get Here?

March 12, 2018

Michael Gerson, best known as George W. Bush’s speechwriter, has a terrific piece in the Atlantic trying to account for evangelical Christians’ embrace of Donald Trump. “It is the strangest story: how so many evangelicals lost their interest in decency, and how a religious tradition called by grace became defined by resentment.” This is the best single account I have read.