Leonard Pitts: Living in post-integrity America

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 23, 2020

By Leonard Pitts

Back during the scandal over his sexual exploitation of a young intern, Bill Clinton was pilloried in this space for his moral defects.

To which many liberals responded with derision. Morality? What did that matter? The economy was good, we were at peace and Clinton was hardly the first man to fool around and lie about it. As one reader put it, he was hired to be a president, not a pope.

At the time, that felt like a rationalization. A generation later, it feels like a portent. Indeed, it is often said that we are living now in Post-Fact America but truth is, we are also living in Post-Integrity America.

No, that’s not breaking news. But it’s been brought into painfully clear focus these last few days.

One watched — not with surprise anymore, the capacity for that being long lost, but surely with dread and fascination — as Donald Trump launched his post-impeachment purge of aides deemed insufficiently sycophantic. But that was just a prelude.

Last week, he pardoned or commuted the sentences of 11 people, most of them guilty of lying, fraud, corruption, tax evasion and similar crimes. In other words, the kinds of things of which Trump has often been accused.

The power to soften or wipe away criminal convictions is one of the nicer perks of the presidency, allowing compassion to be shown to those who deserve it. And in fairness, several of those who benefited last week seem to meet that standard. Crystal Munoz, for instance, had been sentenced to almost 20 years for dealing pot.

But it is worth noting that every person Trump pardoned or gave clemency came to his attention not through the normal machinery of government, but through inside connections or else, as The New York Times noted, “were promoted on Fox News.” Some were championed by aides and allies. Some had donated big money to his campaign. And again, most had breached the public trust.

Like former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who had served eight years of a 14-year sentence for trying to sell Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat. Trump, who has opined how unfair it is that U.S. companies are not allowed to pay bribes to do business overseas, had called that sentence “ridiculous.”

It’s no great leap to suggest that he sees himself in Blagojevich. Or in former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, and financier Michael Milken, whom he pardoned for tax fraud and securities fraud, respectively. If granting clemency and pardons opens a window upon a president’s moral priorities — and it does — the view offered here suggests an unfortunate affinity for scammers and grifters, an empathy for those on the make, cutting deals, cutting corners, living the dream, until they got caught up by pesky rules designed to enforce integrity.

And if those same people happened to give him money or had their names whispered into his ear by a friend, so much the better.

That’s not how this is supposed to work. And that it is working this way right out in the open, before our very eyes, suggests — no, screams — Trump’s imperviousness to any sense of ethical affront.

During Clinton’s scandal, it was argued in this space that a president stamps himself upon an era “not simply by legislative accomplishment, but also … by dint of personal authority and moral suasion.”

Trump disproves that. He has stamped himself upon this era while ignoring the very idea of personal authority or moral suasion — and daring us to care. But we had better. By his lack of personal character, Trump threatens our national character. And he stamps this era with the signature lesson of his life:

Once you give up integrity, it’s easy to give up everything else.

Email Pitts at lpitts@miamiherald.com