Liars and cheaters a big part of our history

Sometimes, the Seven Deadly Sins just aren’t enough.

The Vatican recently unveiled a new checklist of sins consisting of seven “social” transgressions tailor-made for the modern world. They include littering, bioethical violations and drug use – essentially, all the misdeeds that newly installed New York Gov. David Paterson has admitted to violating.

The day after Paterson took office, the New York Daily News gleefully ran as “breaking news” the fact that he and his wife both admitted to conducting extramarital affairs. And just last week, Paterson admitted on a local New York political interview show that during his youth he used cocaine “a couple of times,” as well as marijuana.

So far, that’s one old and one new sin that Paterson has ‘fessed up to. But when will the political class of this nation begin refocusing on the sins that actually matter?

For the American political system to work, it needs politicians who are willing to confront real issues of public welfare, who will strive to materialize broad, far-reaching visions. This is a vital necessity. But what is not important is whether these agents of greater good are actually themselves virtuous.

The New Deal reshaped the American cultural landscape in a way that was without precedent in the entirety of world history.

Almost single-handedly, Franklin D. Roosevelt and his cadre of acolytes forever changed the way citizens view their government. They rescued capitalism from its own excesses. As Tip O’Neill biographer John Farrell writes, it was as a direct result of the Rooseveltians’ New Deal that “now nine out of ten Americans finished high school, one in four got college degrees and two of three owned their own homes. The rate of poverty was cut by two-thirds. A five-day, forty-hour week was standard and comfortable retirement a norm.”

All this was the legacy of a small coterie of men determined to make a permanent imprint on the public stage.

Yet, truth be told, it is hard to find a more amoral and unsavory cast of characters in the annals of America’s past.

FDR himself was a serial adulterer and possessed a frightening streak of ruthlessness and duplicity that his biographers have always had a difficulty balancing with his other, more noble, qualities.

Though he is forever to be lauded for overcoming polio, it speaks volumes of his character that when one of his long-time mistresses, Missy LeHand, fell victim to a stroke, Roosevelt simply cut her off. He “couldn’t deal with it.”

The rest of the men who made up what the son of one member has termed “The House of Roosevelt” were similarly stained by an immense degree of moral turpitude and general weirdness.

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, Roosevelt’s personal preference to succeed him as president and a frequent poker buddy, was a cruel husband to all four of his wives, a negligent father and had the pleasant office habit of every so often singling out one of his law clerks or personal secretaries and simply refusing to talk to them for an extended period of time, sometimes as long as an entire year. (His law clerks had a special nickname for Douglas: “s—head.”)

Lyndon Johnson, Roosevelt’s “pet congressman” in the early 1940s, who Roosevelt liked to say was the man he would be if he didn’t have an Ivy League education, was another noted womanizer who had no qualms about urinating in the parking lot of the House Office Building, not to mention conducting extensive interviews while sitting on the toilet.

And another member of this fraternity, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, a protege of Douglas and Johnson’s personal lawyer, was – you guessed it – a notorious philanderer who colleagues would discover had a disconcerting ability to dissemble and withhold important information.

Yet the point isn’t that these individuals were not fit to serve the American people – far from it.

Douglas was the author of one of the most beautiful judicial philosophies ever to grace modern jurisprudence and was the originator of the concept of the right to privacy.

Johnson was the only politician this country has ever spawned that could have achieved the monumental successes of the Great Society, namely Civil Rights, Medicare and increased educational opportunities.

And during Abe Fortas’ brief time on the court – he would be forced by the Nixon administration to resign a year after a failed attempt by Johnson to install Fortas as Chief Justice – he showed himself to be one of the most intelligent Justices ever to sit on the High Court, authoring memorable opinions such as the landmark Tinker v. Des Moines School District, which expanded the constitutional liberties we all hold so dear, to students.

As a people and as a culture, it’s high time we went back to focusing on the fatal flaws that should truly disqualify a person from public office. And for those, I point you toward a few of the other sins on the Vatican’s new list of “social sins,” namely: polluting the environment, contributing to the widening divide between rich and poor and creating poverty.

Because maybe if politics stopped being a game of personal-morality gotcha, our politicians would actually be willing to put themselves on the line and help lead us toward real, new progress.