But now I almost feel sorry for him. It isn’t pleasant the way he is being pounced on. The stories about envelopes stuffed with cash, cigar and luxury suites in posh hotels are good for gossip, but Olmert’s behaviour is no different from that of Binjamin Netanyahu or Ehud Barak. . . . Ben-Gurion, Begin and Rabin didn’t decide to live modest lives and dispense with luxury: they were just not interested in luxuries, money or the easy life.
No question but what he is onto something here, but it is hardly limited to Israel. In his massive history of Modern India, Ramachandra Guha recalls Max Weber, who “once remarked that there are two ways of making politics one’s vocation: Either one lives ‘for’ politics or one lives ‘off’ it.'" Guha explains:
The first generation of Indian leaders lived mostly for politics. They were attracted by the authority they wielded, but also often motivated by a spirit of service and sacrifice. The Indian politicians of the current generation, however, are more likely to enter politics to live off it. They are attracted by power and prestige, and also by the opportunities for financial reward. Control over the state machinery, they knew, can give glittering prizes to those in charge.
In January of 1966, I started work as a Washington correspondent for the The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Kentucky. Part of my brief was a aongressman named John C. Watts. Watts represented the 6th District in the Bluegrass; but more importantly, he presided over an appropriations subcommittee that controlled the tobacco subsidy program. “The thing you need to know about John,” someone (I forget who) told me, “is that he is richer now than he was when he came to Congress.”
Boy, doesn’t that sound quaint? It was offered as a character assessment, identifying a trait that would distinguish him from the common horde. Of course there were exceptions but politicians in those days just weren’t in it for the money. Sam Rayburn didn’t do it for money. Hubert Humphrey didn’t do it for money. Hell, I’d say that not even Richard M. Nixon did it for money, although he would up pretty well heeled at the end. And Clement Atlee? Oh, give us a break. Winston Churchill lived like a lord and very nearly was one. But for most of the life he also lived by his pen, and at that mostly one step of the sheriff. Only at the end did he go into service as a pet poodle to the rich and not terribly respectable—and a lot of people thought he did fatal damage to his reputation in the process.
Hard to say just when and how it changed. I suppose for the United States, a tipping point was Sam Rayburn’s great pupil, Lyndon B. Johnson, someone who was whole orders of magnitude richer when he ascended to the presidency than when he showed up in Washington just a couple of decades before—thanks to his wife’s business acumen, we used to say. Right, and their joint knack for nicking off valuable government resources along the way. Almost hard to remember how, just a few years before, they asked Harry S Truman what he would do at the end of his term when he got home to Independence, MO. “I’ll take the suitcases up to the attic,” he said. These days, none of these guys knows where the suitcase is, or how to find the attic.
Sources: Uri Avneri, “Olmert and Friends,” London Review of Books 10 (19 June 2008); Ramachandra Guha, India After Ghandi 672 (2007).