They Never Break the Law

A native nf Greenville, Mississippi, and a graduate of Yale, DAVID L. COHN followed the American axiom that only a young man can afford to retire. He scored a quick success in the retail trade of New Orleans, inrested his earnings in a chicken farm, and then net on, to enjoy and report on the world. He is the author of a penetrating study of the White and the Negro entitled Where I Was Born and Raised; a critique of our tariff policy, Picking America’s Pockets; and two volumes of entertaining reminiscence. Love in America and The Good Old Days.


I’VE got children in school,”said Frank McKinney, Indiana banker and chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “If they read those headline? they would think their father was a damn crook,”he told the New York Times. The headlines in the New York Herald Tribune were: “Court Is Told McKinney, McHale, Each Made $75,000 on $1,000 in Empire Company Prompter’s Stock. McHale is Democratic National Committeeman from Indiana, an important political figure there, and McKinneys friend. The two men, and McHale’s wife, made $166,500 in ten months on an investment of $2250.

In 1946 they bought 2250 shares of common stock of the Empire Tractor Corporation at $1 a share. This firm was a remnant of the Empire Ordnance Corporation, a much investigated munitions combine of the last war whose affairs were inspected by the Truman Committee. The stock was shortly repurchased by Empire at a tremendous profit to the investors. In the later bankruptcy proceedings of the company the reason for this action was not made clear and one may go upon the refreshing assumption that, all bough a member of the hard-boiled business world, the company’s president was a corporate Tiny Tim. Or it may be that since the imestors had powerful Washington friends, and therefore came within the purview of the compelling maxim “ It ain’t what you know, it’s who you know.” he thought they might reward his kindness with kindness. Whatever the conjectures, such is the magic of Potomac waters that bread thrown upon it is often immediately transmuted into hunks of valuable penicillin.

Mr. McKinney seems unnecessarily alarmed. No one has called him a “damn crook,”and it is quaintly old-fashioned of him to think that we should be effectively indignant about it even if he did qualify as a crook. It is not that we are incapable of moral indignation. It is that we deploy it against those who richly deserve it — such offenders against the peace and dignity of the commonwealth as men who steal a cow. In our ethics, moreover, crime lies not in being criminal but in being caught, for being caught is offensive to the pragmatism by which so many of us live.

Certainly it is not for us to subscribe to such an outmoded doctrine as that “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”What concerns us is rape on Main Street attended by a cloud of witnesses. Nor is this all. We have cast off the stuffy morality that once afflicted us. There were eccentric churchmen in this country not so long ago — happily their seed was sterile — who refused contributions from the elder Rockefeller on the ground that his was “tainted money.” Even the phrase has vanished from the language. Now that morality has merged with technology, we have mechanical dishwashers that cleanse the outside of the cup while leaving the inside filthy.

Thus, while gambling is nearly everywhere illegal in this country, it has often been decreed legal, at the behest of churches, when the proceeds go to churches. Who shall say that this is wrong?

In the light of all this, let us consider the case of Mr. Lamar Caudle, Assistant Attorney Ceneral off the Cubed States, posted to the Department of Justice in income tax matters, who was recently fired by President Truman. He testified before a Congressional committee: “I may have been guilty of some indiscretion, but I tell you I haven’t done a dishonest thing.”

If he is now in difficulties it is only because of an irresistible compulsion to be kind to his friends. There came to him his friend Mr. Carmen D’Agostino, a wealthy New Jersey businessman. It seems that his mother and father, resident in Italy, were unhappily not happy together. This touched Mr. Caudle’s heart, for if there is anything that we Americans cannot bear it is to see people unhappy; especially married people. Hence, as an accoucheur of love, he went to Italy with Mr. D’Agostino for the benign purpose of reuniting his parents. Who is better qualified to undertake so delicate a task than an Assistant Attorney General of the United States?

We do not know whet her Mr. Caudle was successful in this effort. Yet there were other odds and ends of good deeds to do and he did them. One concerned a trivial matter of $96,000 of credits that Mr. D Agostino had in Italian banks, which, patriotically, he wanted transferred to the United Stales. Mr. Caudle dreamily labored in this vineyard not at all hampered by his status as a high American official. Then, indefatigable as well as versatile, he did another good deed by, he tells us, fighting the spread of Italian communism.

Both men behaved admirably. Mr. Caudle helped a friend. The friend, as evidence that gratitude is a quality of the noble mind, lent him $2000 and paid the expenses of his thirty days’ trip to Italy. Mr. Caudle must have been amazed, therefore, when Representative King, California Democrat, concluded his subcommittee’s examination by denouncing him in these1 words: “The damage you have done your Government is beyond repair.”

Latterly a long procession of Caudles has passed before Congressional committees. No one of them has admitted wrongdoing either legal or ethical. Some, upon rueful reflection after being harried by investigators, have granted that they were perhaps indiscreet in accepting “entertainment,” “gifts,” and other favors from men whom they benefited by misusing their offices. But a violation of the law or their oath of office? No sirree!

Few of the men recently called upon the Washington carpet have been guilty of acts punishable by law. Nor do I doubt the sincerity of their own belief that they have done nothing wrong. Attending the hearings of the Fulbright Committee investigating the Reconstruction Finance Corporation one fell a cold terror. Here were RFC officials who had made dubious loans of public funds to dubious characters, but who could not see that it was improper of them to accept “entertainment" at their hands or “gifts" to their wives. Time after time, querying such witnesses. Senators Fulbright and Douglas shook their heads in amazement that men could be so morally blind. In the estimation of these witnesses an act is wrong only when if may land the actor in jail.

If we were dealing here with the problem of the overtly illegal, it would be relatively simple to solve, for then we should have merely to catch the thieves and jail them. The problem is more difficult because more tenuous; and because more tenuous, more dangerous. If is that of moral blindness; of the disintegration of character which is the beginning of defeat and decay; of our obeisance to the devouring monster of materialism. This is the final result — the morbidly destructive end — of the success story. We know that Raskolnikov, in Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment, merely intended to rob the old woman. But in the end he murdered her.

I suggest that many of our troubles flow from a confusion of synonyms; that they are compounded because the confusion is one of synonyms of values. We are apparently unable to distinguish between bigness and greatness, success and achievement, a standard of living and a standard of file, price and value. The scandalous events in Washington are not unrelated, in my opinion, to the scandals of West Point, the “thrown” basketball games, and the making, of football into big business. If institutions of learning — dedicated allegedly to the pursuit of truth — prostitute themselves to athletics and elevate, above all, the theorem that the game must be won at all costs, is this not in the manner of the rough-and-tumble business community of the 1890s when men commonly said, “Get rich. Honestly it you can, but dishonestly if you must ”?

I suggest, too, that we be not deluded by smugness into believing that corruption in Washington is a uniquely central government phenomenon. Look about you in your own community: your state, county, city. Contemplate New York, our largest port, where the port has been in the control of gangsters for fifty years; a control costing citizens tens of millions a year and acquiesced in by great shipping lines because they find it easier to pay tribute to gangsters than to fight them. Who ultimately is the more destructive here? The gangsters of whom we have no right to expect anything, or the “nice” people of the world’s richest city who submit to their rule because it “pays” to do so?

Note also the findings of the Kefauver Committee. They showed whole states to be dominated by gangsters, with the connivance of governors, mayors, sheriffs, and other officials. These are your communities. You live in one of them. There you bring up your children. But what do you do about it other than to wring your hands and say you cannot do anything about it and return to your bridge game? Why, let us ask ourselves, do we tolerate the outrages inflicted upon us? Why are we narcotically apathetic toward them? Why do we say of a crook, rather admiringly, “Well, I’ll give him credit. He got away with it ”? And if this be the measure of our protest against outrage, who shall measure the eventual infamy among us?

As nothing in the long run can prevent a man from suffering the consequences of his folly, so nothing can prevent a nation from suffering the consequences of its own decay. That decay can be measured in part by the disappearance among us of the phrase “man of character.”The decay is now confined to the peripheral members of our corporate body. If it is not to reach the heart it must be stopped by you and me, and it can be slopped only if we want strongly enough to stop it.