Entitled “The importance of taking on corruption,” Strange’s column bragged (in effect) that “the National Association of Attorneys General asked me to deliver the keynote speech to their National Anticorruption Academy,” and then detailed all the reasons why fighting corruption supposedly is “a subject I know a lot about.”
To an extent, it’s true: Strange organized a task force that – often without his direct involvement – did prosecute, and win convictions of, a number of corrupt public officials.
The obvious reality that Strange’s column ignores is that Strange then completely undermined public confidence in the political system’s freedom from corruption. Just by allowing himself to be considered for appointment to the U.S. Senate by the same governor his own office was investigating, Strange did as much to promote public cynicism as anything in recent memory.
Even if there was no “deal,” no quid pro quo, or even no “wink and a nod,” between Strange and then-Gov. Robert Bentley, the appearance of a corrupt bargain was so obvious, so strong, and so toxic that Strange should have avoided it like the Ebola virus.
The rule is simple, indeed as simple as the rule governing sexual harassment: If you wield great authority over a person, then don’t ask, much less accept, favors from that person.
It’s even worse when you hold authority over someone who himself wields great power. Your ability to receive a truly significant favor, in such a case, is especially large – and the temptation for you to adjust accordingly how you exercise your authority over him grows tremendously.
And if it all involves public office in a republic, then the effect on public trust of any such situations should be a very large part of one’s behavioral considerations.
In his column, Strange completely, almost obtusely, misrepresented the nature of the issues at play in the Senate appointment. Here’s what he wrote:
When Jeff Sessions became United States Attorney General, I was faced with a dilemma. Governor Robert Bentley asked me to fill his seat in the Senate. I believe in serving when called and I wanted to do what was best for the people of Alabama, but Bentley was under an investigation for ethics violations. In some circumstances, I might have worried that leaving the job of Attorney General would undermine that investigation.
Earth to Strange: That wasn’t what the “worry” should have been. The assumption was not that the investigation would be undermined because Strange left it; the assumption was that the investigation would be undermined – or that Bentley would hope it would be undermined – because Bentley gave to Strange the plum job Strange seems to have wanted for his entire adult life.
People didn’t see Strange’s acceptance of the Senate job as “serving when called” but as “taking when offered.” And they certainly didn’t think it was obvious that such a problematic appointment was “what was best for the people of Alabama.”
That paragraph of Strange insults our intelligence.
Again, let’s avoid assuming there really was a corrupt bargain. Even so, for Strange to still refuse to acknowledge the serious problem of appearances here, and the importance of restoring public faith in the system at the very time when the system has been repeatedly rocked by corruption, is for him to fail to credit the essential role public trust plays in a vibrant representative democracy.
Rather than penning this column, Strange for now should have just faded into the political evening. We’re still dealing with the unwanted fallout from the Strange assumption of the Senate seat, and we aren’t yet ready to offer the temporary senator a benediction.
Yellowhammer Contributing Editor Quin Hillyer, of Mobile, also is a Contributing Editor for National Review Online, and is the author of Mad Jones, Heretic, a satirical literary novel published in the fall of 2017.