Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Art of the Possible

It’s these unexpected twists and turns in the course of human events that make politics an art rather than a science.

Alan Schlesinger, the Republican nominee for the U.S. senate, is being pressed by Governor Jodi Rell and state party chairman George Gallo to withdraw from the race following a disclosure that he had gambled at Connecticut’s two casinos.

Schlesinger’s game of choice was blackjack. Schlesinger said he had gambled more frequently in the 1990’s but, during the past few years, he had visited the casinos about once a year.

His card counting skills limited his losses, Schlesinger said, but “I never had a year when I won.” Having been spotted by casino officials as a card counter, Schlesinger said, “I’ve been asked not to play blackjack.”

Neither gambling nor card counting are illegal in Connecticut. Indeed, the state is heavily reliant upon the taxes it receives from the casinos to pay for its basic services, an admission that gambling is both necessary and an ethically neutral activity.

Schlesinger, it would appear, has fallen through the widening gap between activities that are legal but morally objectionable. Many people regard gambling disreputable, even though the state approves and encourages the activity though lottery advertising.

In the bad old days, when gambling was widely viewed as both illegal and immoral, there was no such gap in perceptions. Gamblers were ruthlessly pursued by morally armed officials, and the mob certainly was not permitted to advertise its services. Many ads for the Connecticut lottery are humorous attempts to convince a doubtful public that gambling is a patriotic activity, and politicians appear to be hooked on the tax revenue it provides.

Schlesinger insists that he came by his “wampum card” by fair means and did not earn sufficient winnings to file tax returns. He gambled with a wampum card under a pseudonym, Schlesinger said, because he wished to avoid public scrutiny: “I used a pseudonym just for this reason: this stupidity we are going through now.”

Whose stupidity?

If you are a public figure and you begin to dissemble, it will not be long before you find yourself enveloped in a burka of dissimulation. It’s always the blowback that kills. Nothing Schlesinger did was illegal; nothing Lisa Moody did was illegal – at first. But oh what a tangled web we weave when once we practice to deceive. The game of deception must be kept up, and it is very easy to cross the borderline that marks off unethical from illegal behavior.

There was no law preventing Lisa Moody from handing out to state commissioners invitations to campaign fundraisers; the law applies sanctions to commissioners who strong arm workers into contributing to candidates they do not wish to support. Moody’s foot was caught in a snare when she insisted before a legislative committee that she had not read or sufficiently considered a memo discouraging such activities. Had she lied to the legislative committee, she would have committed perjury – which is illegal. However, proving that politician A has lied to politician B -- or, in Moody’s case, a series of partisan political Torquemadas plying her with questions – is somewhat iffy.

So too with Schlesinger: Gambling is legal, through frowned upon by moral enforcers. But his use of a pseudonym on a wampum card has given his opponents – not all of them Democrats – an opportunity to claim that Schlesinger had obtained the card by illegal means.

It is better in these matters to follow the sage advice of Mom and Huckleberry Finn: If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.

In politics one often finds dissimulation piled upon dissimulation. Some have suggested that Schlesinger is being nudged off the political stage to make way for a Republican candidate that might do better in a three way race between Democrats Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont on the one hand, and any Republican candidate less blameless but more politically adept than Schlesinger on the other

Politics is sometimes called the art of the possible. In a profession of ethically challenged incumbents, pretty much anything to which no jail term is attached may be possible.

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