Nearly all discussion of politics overlooks a constant but hidden factor: blackmail. We can never know the extent to which our rulers are secretly ruled by others who know their dark secrets. And Washington, like most cities, is full of dark secrets.
Since the 1996 election, for example, it has transpired that Bob Dole was afraid to make an issue of Bill Clinton’s character because he was afraid that his own extramarital affair, many years earlier, might be revealed. I first read about it in the New York weekly The Village Voice at the very end of the campaign.
I have no reason to believe that the Clinton team ever threatened Dole. That might not even have been necessary. Dole’s anxiety might have been enough to intimidate him: “The guilty flee when no man pursueth.”
Suppose, though, that the Clinton campaign had wanted to scare Dole away from “the character issue.” It could have been done without an overt threat, just by letting him know, even indirectly, that the Democrats knew the name of Dole’s former mistress.
Few things are more unnerving than learning that your enemy has learned things you don’t want your own family to know. One reason the two parties seem so friendly to each other is that each is afraid of what the other might do in an all-out fight. Both have a lot to hide. And since keeping secrets is harder in the media age than ever before, the problem is likely to keep getting worse.
“Opposition research,” as it’s tactfully called, is an integral part of the Clinton modus operandi. It includes hiring investigators to gather dirt on potential adverse witnesses. It includes illegally requisitioning FBI files on prominent Republicans. It has reportedly included putting a political enemy’s credit card receipts on the front page of an Arkansas newspaper.
Once you possess damaging information about your adversary, you can do several things with it. You can save it for a crucial moment. You can discreetly let him know you have it. You can leak it to the press. Or you can publicize it yourself, as both a punishment to him and a warning to others not to cross you.
The Clinton trash team has made examples of several women, thereby discouraging others from telling their stories. If you say you know something about Bill Clinton, you can bet he’s going to know something about you.
These techniques aren’t new. A certain Senate majority leader a generation ago was known for his ability to collect the guilty secrets of his colleagues. When he needed their votes, he made sure they were keenly aware of what he knew about their private lives. He didn’t have to bully them; he could simply needle them with a rough joke that told them he’d somehow heard about that weekend in Las Vegas. They got the point as surely as if they’d awakened that morning to find a horse’s head between the sheets.
We know that several presidents have used the FBI and IRS against their opposition. But we don’t know how many times this has happened without coming to light even many years after the fact. Such things may remain permanently hidden from the most diligent historians. Just as we have no way of calculating how many crimes go undetected and unpunished, we can only guess how large a part blackmail plays in politics.
As long as there is sin, there will be blackmail. No reform can get rid of it. It can take many forms, not all of them illegal or provable in court. And it will always remain a hidden factor. This means that we can never completely know who controls our nominal rulers.
There is no real solution, but there is a corrective. The weaker the government, the less impact crime, corruption, and blackmail within the government can have on the rest of us.
Men in power are more criminal than people in general, not only because power corrupts but also because most people who seek power are already corrupt. This being so, the danger of blackmail is one more reason to limit the power of government.