Somehow, the prospect of John Rowland's returning to a federal prison does not make me all warm, fuzzy and grateful to be living in this, the best of all possible worlds. Yet, you would think I would be thrilled. After all, wasn't the former governor's latest conviction a victory for transparency in government, for assuring that "we the people" are informed of who is doing what in our names?
That's the line federal prosecutors were chirping, both in closing arguments during trial and after the verdict. Listening to their gibberish made me fear for the republic. Dark money —funds contributed by secret donors to organizations screaming hate and misinformation—is the coin of the realm in electoral politics. Both right and left have jammed the airwaves with swill. I suspect that's one reason why national politics resembles less reasoned debate about the issues than catcalls by jeering groupies at an athletic event.
Prosecuting John Rowland is sort of like popping a zit and then announcing a cure for skin cancer.
That Rowland was on the make is a given. That he took some $35,000 from Brian Foley to provide secret support for Lisa Wilson-Foley's failed congressional campaign was proved beyond a reasonable doubt to the satisfaction of 12 jurors. But let's not kid ourselves about the practical effect of this conviction—zero, zilch, sound and fury signifying nothing.
A tidal wave of dark money drowns out reasoned debate. The likes of Sheldon Adelson, a geriatric casino owner in Las Vegas, pump tens of millions of dollars into PACs, super PACs and nonprofits for the express purpose of manipulating the electoral process. All of this is legal, of course. We tolerate this form of electoral fraud in the name of freedom of speech.
To claim, as did the prosecution in its closing argument, that the Rowland case "goes to the very heart of the most basic right we have in America. The right to vote, the right to make informed decisions about who is going to represent us" is simply naïve, a juvenile form of flag waving.
To assert, as the government did in its closing argument, that "every American is entitled to certain information. Who's paying a candidate, who is the candidate beholden to?" is sort of like insisting that we each have the right to live to a ripe old age. It sounds nice enough, but reality mocks those with the courage to open their eyes and look at the world around them.
To intone, as the government did at trial, that "Mr. Rowland sought to deprive voters of … information. He was going to be paid to steer that candidate into the United States government and he didn't want anyone to know about it" is to chest-thump about how mom and dad have never soiled sheets in the name of passion, no not once.
It was no surprise that Rowland was convicted. Press accounts made the government's proof sound overwhelming. Rowland's out-of-state lawyer came rolling into town promising a brawl, and crawled home looking not so much lame, but clueless. This was all that a star of the white-collar bar could offer? The trial looked less like a contest for the soul of the republic than it did a concession stand outside Rome's Coliseum—inside the arena, blood was being spilled, while the hawkers sold flimsy trinkets to children.
U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton will no doubt slap Rowland hard come sentencing day. It would not surprise me to see her depart upward from the sentencing guidelines to punish Rowland for his sins. It is all such a silly, silly farce. You can lock up John Rowland, you can throw away the key. It changes nothing about the mess that is electoral politics. And we the people know it.
What does a failing republic look like? It looks like USA v. John G. Rowland—a grand spectacle of yesteryear's rhetoric, willfully blind to the reality all around us, a malignant expression of patriotic form that mocked us by pretending to care about things fundamental. It was, in the end, but the latest form of bread and circuses, a distraction from what ails us.