Political Ethics in Political Leadership
Jude Wanniski
November 15, 2002

 

Memo To: Supply-Side Students
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Rep. George Bush [R TX] 1967

Im sure former President Bush has long ago forgotten this political column I wrote about him 35 years ago. I had too, but when rummaging through my files two weeks ago looking for a column I had written about Walter Mondale in 1967, I came across this ancient commentary. At the time I was the 30-year-old weekly political columnist for the now defunct National Observer. By chance, I happened into the House press gallery on an afternoon in early March of 67, when business was usually closed down for the day, and found a cluster of freshmen Republican congressmen on the floor, having a discussion about congressional ethics. They had been summoned by the fellow they had elected the president of the freshman class, the congressman from Houston, George Herbert Walker Bush. I sat in the gallery almost alone as I recall listening to the exchange. When I got back to the office I told my editor what I planned to write about in my column and said I had just witnessed a remarkable event, hosted by a young man Id never heard about before, but who I said was likely some day to be political timber for the presidency. My reasoning is as good today as it was way back then:

March 6,1967

This Week In Washington
A FRESHMAN CLASS IN ETHICS

A little-noted even that took place on the floor of the House of Representatives early last week, two days before the House voted to bar Adam Clayton Powell from his seat in the 90h congress, could have been the determining factor in the vote against Mr. Powell.

The event did not concern a cloakroom power play to "get Powell, and there was nothing insidious about it. In fact, it did not specifically focus on the activities of the Harlem Democrat. But with the House chamber nearly empty, freshman Republicans spent an hour philosophizing about Congressional ethics.

This seminar of sorts had been organized by a young congressman from Houston, George Bush, 43, an Ivy League transplant to Texas whose father, Prescott Bush, served a distinguished tenure as U.S. senator from Connecticut.

The discussion was remarkable in that Mr. Bush had quietly convinced his rookie colleagues of an almost revolutionary proposition. Although freshman are traditionally expected to sit back unobtrusively while learning from their elders on matters of legislation and procedure, he contended, the question of ethics is another matter entirely. Indeed, if ethical reform is to be brought to Congress, he said, its natural that it should spring from the new members, those whose hands are still clean, uncompromised by the expediencies of the past.

"True, we lack experience in the House," he told his young colleagues, but we bring to this problem a fresh look. We feel totally uninhibited by tradition in this sensitive area, because we think we heard the unmistakable clear voice of the people saying on Nov 8, "Go there and do something to restore respect for the House.

In all, 19 GOP freshmen followed Mr. Bush with little speeches of their own, and 42 of the 47 new Republicans joined with him in a statement that called for the creation of a select committee on standards and conduct.

Their proposal is so starry-eyed in its idealism that it looks as if it could have come out of a political-science class or good government. It seems to stop short only of having House members take weekly lie-detector exams to prove their fidelity. "It would make all members disclose their principal assets and liabilities. Mr. Bush explained, their sources of income, their relationships with businesses that are beholden to the Federal Government for their right to do business. In addition, it calls for a full disclosure of relatives on the payroll, and it requires the spelling out of any relationship, financial or personal, with any lobbyist.

It's a long way from the "honor system" that prevails in the House, far broader than the ethics subcommittee that the House Administration Committee last month said it would establish, and more specific in its commandments than the ethics committee the Senate has established. It is doubtful that the House elders would pass so comprehensive a code, even if Mr. Bush assured them that Moses himself handed it to him.

There is a good possibility, though, that as a result of their vote on Mr. Powell, the House members will not be able to slide back from their promises of an ethics committee of some sort-either the limited subcommittee approach favored by some Democrats or the full, select committee that Republicans are asking.

For one thing, freshman Republicans say they will keep pressure applied. And from the Senate, there will be continued pressure as long as its ethics committee is occupied with the investigation of Sen. Thomas J. Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat accused of diverting campaign contributions to his personal use. The Dodd hearing opens next week.

Even if the little-noted philosophy seminar of the rookie Republicans has no future effect, it almost certainly contributed heavily to Mr. Powell's exclusion. By the end of the afternoon, House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford knew it was useless trying to the newcomers into voting to punish and censure Mr. Powell but not bar him.

Of the 43 GOP freshmen who participated in the Bush statement of ethics, 30 also voted to bar Mr. Powell on the first crucial roll call. If only 20 had done so, Mr. Powell very likely would have been voted his seat. In a way, then, his fate was decided by an Ivy League Texan and a freshman philosophy class.

- Jude Wanniski