The Common Good
May 2007

What's In a Name? (Parole if you're good.)

by Ed Spivey Jr. | May 2007

Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Although, some less so than others.

Here at the Sojourners Ethics Desk—with a staff of tireless watchdogs who, while not actual dogs, can't help it if one leg wiggles involuntarily during a nice tummy rub—we keep a keen eye on the nation's government employees, particularly those whose service to the public includes lengthy fact-finding trips inside courthouses and prisons. Lately, it has come to our attention that a pattern has developed in the scandals involving officials, for whom was written the phrase "absolute power corrupts absolutely." (It's also true that "a lot of power corrupts a lot" and "a smidge of power corrupts just a tad." But I digress.) While the charges against them range from influence peddling to lying to a grand jury, each of the alleged perpetrators has one thing in common: A nickname.

The list is short, but substantial: Former top CIA official Kyle "Dusty" Foggo is under investigation for his questionable relationship with defense contractors. Former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham is in prison for steering federal contracts to friends. (He first raised suspicion after naming his new yacht "The Ill-Gotten Booty.") White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby was found guilty of giving false testimony to a federal prosecutor. And Robert "Hair-Looks-Fake" Ney was convicted of taking bribes from lobbyists.

Okay, we made up that last one. But sometimes you have to bend the truth to make an important ethical point. (And, no offense, but Rep. Ney does have a look that says to passing lobbyists, "I REALLY like to golf, hint hint. And please stop staring at my hair.")

And we almost forgot Rep. William "the Fridge" Jefferson, who allegedly took bribes from undercover FBI agents. We say "allegedly" because the video tape of him accepting $90,000 cash and the subsequent discovery of $90,000 cash in his freezer could be just a coincidence. We're just raising a more fundamental moral question, such as: Dude, why didn't you put half the money in the freezer and the other half under the mattress? That way, no one would suspect anything.

But we here at the Ethics Desk don't point fingers, believing strongly that people are innocent until proven guilty, mostly. The main exception being "Karl" Rove, who hasn't been guilt-free since the fourth grade when he invented the politics of personal destruction and convinced his teacher that he—and he alone—should bring in the milk tray every day.

Concerned about this nickname problem, we looked at the alphabetical listing on congressional Web sites to weed out others whose names might suggest future criminal activity. The results were not encouraging.

Can anyone really expect honest behavior from the likes of Robert E. "Bud" Cramer, Henry "Hank" Johnson, or Charles "Chip" Pickering? Not to mention John D. "Jay" Rockefeller (not to be confused with great-grandfather John D. "More Money than God" Rockefeller.) There might be even more, but that would require additional research, so I stopped because what is this, school?

Psychologists tell us that adults who still use nicknames are subconsciously seeking the acceptance that eluded them in their youth. They are trying to tell the world they're just "regular people," or, in the case of "Scooter" Libby, a "regular two-wheeled vehicle." As they yearn for validation, they are susceptible to influences from the malevolent forces that lurk around the nation's capital, such as corrupt corporate interests and wealthy autocrats or, in the case of the current vice president, both. After all, it was "Dick" Cheney who ordered his staff to distract the media from troublesome truths about the coming war. (And to take the heat off leaker-in-chief Rove, who is currently considering a career change. Something in the dairy delivery field, I'm guessing.)

BUT IS IT REALLY so surprising that many of our public servants easily succumb to such temptations? Isn't ours a society of deception and untruth, where subtle falsehoods are perpetrated on a daily basis? Even something as simple as ordering coffee has been corrupted by devious marketing strategies that routinely distort the truth. In most Starbucks, for example, Zaccheus would be a Grande (or at least a Tall).

And NASCAR, the beloved institution that embodies all that Americans hold sacred—namely, drinking beer and watching loud cars drive in circles—has been marred by the allegation that superstar driver Michael Waltrip was using jet fuel in his car. The higher octane fuel would have boosted horsepower in the supercharged V-8 block and exceeded the 750 horsepower norm beyond allowable limits. (Well, duh.) What? Okay, not a NASCAR crowd. Noted.

On the other hand, a culture of self-deception can be useful. For example, the U.S. recently deployed a missile-defense system that doesn't work as a deterrent against Iranian missiles that don't exist. In this age of asymmetrical warfare, it's a welcome change.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

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