What makes them think they can get away with it
by Phil Brooks
Eric Greitens’ sex scandal prompted a journalism editor to ask me why some politicians are so arrogant that they think they can get away with improper shenanigans.
It was a good question.
What makes a public official think “you can get away with it” given the history of political careers destroyed by misbehavior?
In recent years, a Missouri House speaker, former Democratic House leader and House Insurance Committee chair were forced to resign because of sexual-related scandals.
Add to that the earlier history of criminal convictions and investigations of Missouri public officials for illegal activities.
The question of “getting away with it” involves a much broader context beyond cheating on one’s spouse or committing a crime.
The phrase suggests any action one wants to keep private for fear of personal, political or legal consequences.
My definition would include taking undisclosed money from secret donors, pushing issues to pander to special interests, lying about intentions and using taxpayer money for political propaganda.
Every year I see legislative action on bills with little chance of ultimate passage but which provide an opportunity for some lawmakers to demonstrate support for the causes of special interests with deep pockets or political clout.
One possible explanation for this attitude is the corrupting influence of the political environment.
I’ve seen some officials develop an arrogance of power after years of being pandered to by lobbyists and special interests.
But I’ve also seen a completely opposite reaction from others as they’ve matured in the legislative process, such as Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph. He has emerged as the legislature’s leading voice against corruption from special interest money.
Missouri’s current governor is another demonstration that seniority is not the complete answer. Although a newbie to government, on his first day in office Greitens demonstrated a disregard for accountability to the public.
He announced an order to ban state workers taking money from lobbyists, but then a foundation quickly was established with secret funding sources to promote his agenda.
Under Greitens, digital apps were used to delete staff communication, staff were required to sign non-disclosure agreements and a lock was installed on the communications office that had been open to reporters for decades.
Another possibility I considered to my friend’s question was that many in public office are “alpha” personalities willing to expose themselves to public attack and ridicule to win public office.
Maybe it’s a personality that makes them more likely to take risks of public exposure.
But that answer doesn’t work either because I’ve found some of the alpha personalities I’ve covered to be the most honest, candid and principled officials I’ve covered.
They include successful state leaders like Warren Hearnes, Jack Danforth, George Lehr and Mel Carnahan.
As an aside, you’d be mistaken if you think our state’s “alpha” leaders were only males.
The state’s first female House Speaker, Catherine Hannaway, was a hard-driving leader who put together the plan for Republicans to capture control of the Missouri House.
State Sen. Harriet Woods was an alpha in achieving some of the state’s most major legislative issues and then becoming the state’s first female lieutenant governor.
So, an alpha personality doesn’t explain the self-destructive behavior my journalist friend asked me about.
After weeks of continuing to ponder that question, the concept of enablers came to mind.
In the political environment, enablers are uncritical staffers, lobbyists, allies, colleagues and special interests who tell public officials what they want to hear with little or no words of opposition.
As I think back on it, many of the public officials I’ve covered who sought “to get away with it” had been surrounded by these kind enablers.
Maybe it’s the persistent non-critical encouragement and “stroking” by enablers that ultimately leads to a sense of entitlement and immunity from consequence.
But, ultimately, I wonder if I’m trying to find too simple an answer for why people lie, cheat or commit crimes without fear of consequence — whether public officials or private citizens.