South Africa, World

Analysis: When good leaders go bad

By J Brooks Spector 31 March 2016

The travails of South Africa’s incumbent president nudges J. BROOKS SPECTOR to consider presidents and prime ministers in other climes and times who have faced charges that their administration was tainted, for any clues that might be useful in the present circumstances.

We’re all familiar with the news video clips of a particular type these days. A nasty autocrat, unthinking generals, a long-serving dictator, or even a self-declared emperor finally pushes people too far with his corruption, cruelty and violence – and then, bam, a spark ignites dry tinder and there are thousands and thousands of people rallying in the nearest handy city centre park or open square. They erect temporary structures, they set up signs and banners, they find a colour that suits their mood or ideology, they build their global links via social media and video streaming, and the reporters and satellite dishes gather.

Then, suddenly, out come the billy clubs, the tear gas and the baton charges – until the crowds find bits of paving, street signs and the like so they can fight back. After some back and forth, at some point, the security forces waver and break – and then the newest bad guy is on his way to the airport, shoved in a cage inside a special prison ready for trial, or suspended from a lamppost. Ah ha! There’s another Nicolae Ceau?escu gone on to his just rewards, it is said.

But what about those places where there have been actual free and fair elections, along with all the appropriate trappings of democracy? How do people respond to the charges or evidence of corruption or illegal activities in high places? Is it in the street or somewhere else where the change will happen – when it does? And what about a leader who was outrageously popular with the voters, but whose administration just happens to be replete with crooks? What happens in those cases? South Africans, pondering their own current circumstances, may profit from a look at several historical (and current) examples for a glimpse at what might possibly be next.

For nearly all Americans, the most compelling example of such nastiness remains that of Richard Nixon. Re-elected overwhelmingly in 1972, his campaign organisation had worked zealously to raise previously unheard of amounts of campaign contributions, including numerous examples of where they evaded or overstepped the law.

With much more funding than they really needed to defeat the hapless Democratic candidate, Senator George McGovern, money was funnelled on to paying a band of men who were hired to break into Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate office building (the name of which became the label for the entire mess and has given “gate” for a suffix for nearly every political scandal since), and spent for those men’s legal defence, once they were arrested. This campaign was teamed up with a pervasive paranoia among Nixon appointees that his presidency was under assault from evil outside forces. That, in turn, led to a litany of surveillance activities, dirty tricks to upend the McGovern candidacy, and – because of an ongoing “routine” tape recording of conversations inside the White House’s Oval Office – eventually the presidency was broken apart by reporters urged to “follow the money” of illegal or sub rosa payments. And the case was finally cinched by those secretly recorded conversations – and efforts to conceal them – that directly showed the president conspiring to engage in illegal acts.

For most Americans, the successful end to Watergate became the epitome of a system righting wrongs and stabilising the ship of state. But consider that the whole thing might well have been ignored, if that sharp-eyed night guard patrolling the supposedly empty office block had not caught sight of a piece of tape applied to a door latch by one of the burglars.

Or, even if they had been caught red-handed, if the cryptic notation – “Howard Hunt WH” – hadn’t been discovered in the address book of one of the burglars that led back to some of the less savoury mid-level aides in the White House. Or what if it hadn’t slipped out accidentally during congressional testimony that there was an entire tape recording system that had captured all the conversations in the Oval Office. And, similarly, if two diligent young reporters hadn’t tracked down the trail of dirty money that had funded so much of the subterranean campaign, would any of this have mattered all that much?

Or even, after all that, what if the president’s team hadn’t tried to push through a thoroughly expurgated transcript of the recordings. That was where that mysterious 18-minute gap in the recording came into being where crucial moments were deleted to cover up even more incriminating statements than those already in the public record.

Absent of all of these, the constitutional processes of congressional hearings and the slow but inexorable movement towards a bill of impeachment voted by the House of Representatives might have never happened, or might have been stopped in its tracks for lack of any real evidence of “high crimes and misdemeanours”, and Richard Nixon would have finished his second term, moved US-China relations further along and – just possibly – ended the Vietnam War before the end of that term of office as well. Democrats would have looked on in impotent fury as he rode out the ructions caused by his re-election campaign and the paranoia in his administration over anti-war protesters and civil rights campaigners.

The point, of course, is that there never were mass public demonstrations demanding an end to a thoroughly corrupted presidency and Nixon’s replacement, after a thorough housecleaning at the White House. However, Nixon’s crimes were not, of course, about his own personal enrichment, except in the most political of senses. Eventually a disgraced president, he made his fortune from well-crafted memoirs and books on statecraft, before he finally slipped away as a man honoured for his diplomatic skills, even as he was reviled for his political temperament. But he never spent one minute in the pokey.

Fifty years earlier, during the administration of Warren G Harding, The Teapot Dome scandal broke into the news. Teapot Dome was an untapped oil field, held in reserve on behalf of the Navy Department, in the event of a national military crisis when the petroleum supply might be interrupted by hostile action. The scandal in the Harding administration, a rather morally lax bunch generally, occurred when that strategic oil reserve was transferred, via rather devious means, to a private petroleum company and then, wondrously, it had cost them virtually nothing to obtain the rights to lift petroleum from that field.

Eventually it was discovered that Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall had looked the other way while it had all happened, and congressional hearings finally discovered Fall had accepted one of those brown envelopes filled with cash, rather a lot of it, it seemed. Fall resigned in disgrace and was eventually successfully prosecuted for corruption, but Harding, who was, after all, the head of the whole administration, the man where that metaphorical buck might well have stopped, was never touched by any of it. Of course, Harding had the decency to die in office (reportedly by food poisoning from some Alaskan king crab consumed while on a trip to that state, although rumours persist that he was poisoned by someone else close to him, perhaps because of his tendency to have intimate relationships outside of marriage).

And 50 years before that, Civil War uber-hero, General Ulysses S. Grant, was elected overwhelmingly to succeed Andrew Johnson, the man who had just escaped impeachment after trying to fire one of his cabinet officers despite a new congressional act that forbade the exercise of that very presidential prerogative. Grant’s administration was also plagued by some rather blatant acts of fiscal corruption in which what was effectively a dummy corporation, the Credit Mobilier, was created to park funds, for later private transfer to the conspirators, from the sale of lands generated from the transcontinental railroad’s march across the country, as well as, crucially, federal funds dedicated to reimbursing the cost of building the railroad.

Several Grant administration officials and congressmen were implicated in the scandal, but despite the ethical swamp that seemed to be his presidency, President Grant’s popularity was untouched through during his election to his second term of office. Of course he retired with virtually no money tucked away (presidential pensions not yet having been set up), and only a fevered writing of his memoirs, generously subsidised by author Mark Twain, assured his family of any income before the ex-president died from throat cancer just a few weeks after finishing his book. The book actually became a best-seller due to its quality and some adroit marketing, and it remains in print, even now. But it never mentioned his presidency.

More recently, in Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was eventually indicted on five criminal counts, including tax evasion, stemming from a variety of corruption cases. Three years after his indictment, he was finally convicted of breach of trust and then, two years later, of bribery as well. After much courtroom Sturm und Drang, Olmert ended up with a 19-month jail sentence and finally entered the big house a little over a month ago. It does happen.

Or, turn one’s gaze to Brazil where President Dilma Rousseff has been the target of increasingly vigorous protests, demonstrations, and calls for her head on a pike in past months, as the reporting on wide-ranging scandals has grown and Brazil’s economy has been running downward into recession. Brazilians all seem to have virtually forgotten it is only about 130 days away from its Rio de Janeiro Olympic games, as the country’s attention has shifted fully towards its growing political crisis. The root of the problem is, once again – no prize for guessing – money associated with oil revenues and resources, this time with the state-owned company, Petrobras, as officials and cabinet members are embroiled in an amoeba-like corruption scandal. Even the previously much-loved president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whom Rousseff was attempting to appoint as her top aide (she had been a generally respected part of his administration) and she had apparently hoped his recall to service might possibly help right her severely listing ship. But Lula has now been dragged into the mess as well over the spreading corruption charges, and Rousseff’s partner parties are deserting her coalition government. The likelihood grows daily that she will either face impeachment or finally just surrender the reins of power rather than face the ignominy of being subject to a public trial and near-certain impeachment and conviction.

And for comparison’s sake, there is also the saga of Kakuei Tanaka, who had a decades-long career as a leading Japanese politician and cabinet official, prime ministerial kingmaker as well as prime minister himself. Unlike most Japanese politicians, he did not have one of those fancy Tokyo University educations. Instead, he had built up a thriving construction company before entering politics. Then as now, construction was a ready source of money – and a great way to gain more – from government funds when there is infrastructure to build. While in office, he just happened to accept a very handsome payment from the Lockheed Corporation to accept their planes for a government-owned airline in place of Boeing’s equally good planes. Eventually the money was traced back to Lockheed, and Tanaka had to resign as prime minister. Regardless, his national popularity and his skills as a politician remained largely intact, even though his trial remained open until his passing, and this allowed him to exert his influence on numerous subsequent prime ministers, until he was felled by a stroke and was forced to – finally – retire from political life. In death, of course, the great and powerful all came to pay homage to him and the faction he led among the ruling party’s parliamentary delegation has lived on through numerous subsequent faction leaders and it remains a force in Japanese politics to this day.

And so, what lessons can we draw from all of this? Well, there is the logical inverse of that famous injunction, “follow the money”, or the idea that whatever one does, one shouldn’t get caught or be tied to those who are. Even more, perhaps, the best advice of all might well be for presidents and prime ministers to do the right thing, right from the get-go; do it honestly; and do it transparently. And do it before your “friends” drag you down, or your enemies find out all about the mess and deal with you instead. DM

Photo: Presidents Jacob Zuma and Richard Nixon.

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