Politics and Morality
Paul Simon

The Adlai E. Stevenson Memorial Lecture was established by the board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Urbana-Champaign on August 9, 1965.

The theme of the lecture is to be: "Politics and Morality."

This lecture has been established in the belief that such a memorial is consistent with the concerns of the late governor, and a proper reminder of his religious and political commitments.

I confess a feeling both of pleasure and inadequacy in this opportunity to present the first annual lecture here honoring the memory and ideals of Adlai E. Stevenson.

It has been only a few months since that pleasant sum­mer day when we were stunned by the news of his death. We are still too close to that event to judge with any finality either the stature of the man or the relevancy of his message. But it is patently clear that Adlai E. Steven­son will be remembered long after many of our presi­dents are all but forgotten, and that his appeal to reason, cooperation and compassion must help guide our destiny if those things we treasure most are to be preserved for future generations.

During the years when Senator Joseph McCarthy reg­ularly made headlines, when fear threatened to replace faith, when we were in danger of remembering only what we opposed, here was a man on the scene who could make us laugh at ourselves, who helped give us perspective, who gently admonished us to remember those ideals for which our nation has stood.

His very appointment as ambassador to the United Nations raised the prestige of that organization. Whether it was a dramatic confrontation with the Soviets over the Cuban missiles, or a complex resolution about Algeria, each of us had the confidence that at the United Nations was a man who not only represented our nation's best interest, but the world's best interest. When he died it was perhaps appropriate that it should be on foreign soil, for he belonged to all nations as much as he be­longed to our nation.

In all of the tributes paid to Adlai E. Stevenson follow­ing his death, little mention was made of his contribu­tions as Governor of Illinois. Perhaps his gift to state government is best summed up by a long-time lobbyist on the Springfield scene who told me a few years ago:

"In all of my years in Springfield, no one has ever lifted the whole tone of state government as Governor Steven­son did."

I shall not impose on you a lengthy list of achieve­ments in state government, but let me remind you of an important date in Illinois history that is now all but for­gotten: May 12, 1950. On that date the Illinois State Highway Police from the northern part of the state swooped down on two big gambling casinos in my county of Madison, catching the gambling gentry and some pub­lic officials with complete surprise. It was the first time in Illinois history that state highway police has been used for that purpose. It brought to an end "the good old days" — as some like to call them — when county and municipal officials could plot with the vermin of society and arrange for this gang or that gang to take over gamb­ling in your county or mine. The state police could not have been used in that raid had not Governor Stevenson, over strenuous objections from many politicians, placed the state police on a merit system. And once that was achieved, it became easier to do some desperately needed housekeeping. It is impossible to gauge the long-range improvement that has brought to many of our commun­ities, but it is tremendous. Instead of endless arguments, token raids, and corrupting influences, many of our local governments are discussing things they should have been long ago: whether they should have a detention home for juveniles, whether they need a park and recreation pro­gram. In areas where gambling money flowed freely to the treasuries of both parties, happily we are relatively free from these gifts which were always given only at a terrible price.

May 12, 1950 is but one of the many illustrations that in the area of politics and morality, Governor Stevenson acted when distressingly many in public life neither talk nor act to improve the tone of government.

In discussing "Politics and Morality" there are those who say there is no connection between the two and should be none. With this I heartily disagree. That there sometimes is no connection between the two I recognize. But some type of moral foundation for our political pro­cess is both desirable and necessary. Politics is certainly not an arena in which you generally choose between good and evil. I wish it were that simple. We are faced with a dilemma that Abraham Lincoln described in 1848:

The true rule in determining to embrace, or reject anything is not whether it have any evil in it; but whether it have more of evil than of good. There are few things wholly evil, or wholly good. Almost everything, especially of governmental policy, is an inseparable compound of the two; so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.

Accepting the truth of that statement, does that leave us rudderless in the seas of politics? I think not. While we may disagree on what the moral imperatives should be, there are certain things so basic that virtually all men of good will can find agreement with them. Let me suggest four rules that may seem obvious:

1. Government policy should not be for sale to the highest bidder.

"Corruption" and "freedom" are diametrically op­posed terms. The theory of a representative democracy is that men of opposing views come together, freely ex­pressing their views, and in the process the public good is served more often than in any other governmental structure. Corruption means the dominance of a special interest over the public interest. Those who are in the filthy business of buying votes do not spend their money unless they get what they pay for.

The taped conversation of three lobbyists in Spring­field presents a good example. The court decision to prohibit the use of those tapes for legal prosecution may be a proper decision. But let no one miss the message of those tapes: too often your government has been for sale in Springfield. I heard no one on the Springfield scene suggest that these tapes were not authentic. What they described was three men spending $200 to $1,000 a vote — a total of $30,000 — to kill a bill. The tapes make clear that the people of Illinois, by their indifference and cynicism, have tolerated the crudest type of corrup­tion.

In the last fifty years the neighboring state of Wiscon­sin has not had a single major scandal in state govern­ment while in Illinois we have had scores of them. We need to start asking ourselves: Why? The answer is not simple but answers are available. The most fundamental answer is that the public must start becoming intolerant of the easy dollar that corrodes the very foundation of our society.

When I say that government policy should not be for sale, this means policy changes beyond the crudest pro­stitution of our policies.

We have not faced up to the question of campaign expenses and contributions, for example. President Theodore Roosevelt wanted us to follow some modifica­tion of the British system, where expenditures are tightly limited, and funds come from the government. I strong­ly favor such a change. A campaign for governor of Illinois, for example, costs more than $1 million for any serious candidate and most of those who contribute this money expect something in return. That "something" is not always in the public interest. Preferential treatment for everything from contracts to ambassadorships will continue within our nation until we face up to the viciousness of our current practices which all too often place government policies and positions up for public auction.

2.  Those governing have a moral obligation to spend public money carefully.

Government by its nature has certain inefficiencies. This is true of a state, a county, a municipality, a university, and even that strangest of Illinois governmental creatures: a mosquito abatement district.

Those of us who govern should be aware of these inefficiencies and hold them to a minimum.

As an extreme example, in the 1963 session of the Illinois General Assembly, $96,500 was appropriated to study the disease of race horses. When I asked the spon­sor how much we were spending on cancer research, he replied he didn't know but felt the appropriation for the already pampered ponies was very important. Another senator got up and said he had been betting on horses he was sure had some diseases, and the legislation passed and became law.

At the federal level a few weeks ago Senator Daniel Brewster of Maryland attempted to limit federal farm support to any individual or corporation first to $25,000 and then $50,000. Both times he was defeated, despite the fact that Senator Brewster had pointed out that one Arkansas corporation had received over $16 million in 1964 under this program that was originally conceived as a help to the small farmer.

Government spending is by itself neither automatical­ly right or wrong. But when tax funds are used to help race horses rather than people, when tax money is used to sustain an archaic system of party patronage like we have in Illinois, when public funds are spent unneces­sarily on interest instead of goods and services, then we must act. Failure to act makes honorable people ques­tion not only the unwise expenditure but the necessary expenditure, and worthy causes suffer along with the un­worthy.

3. Government has an obligation to permit the free flow of ideas.

Founded as we are on the importance of the individ­ual, we must not only respect a man's right to walk down the sidewalk and seek a job, but also the right to express unpopular views. We are not founded on the premise that you can put an idea into jail.

The greatest weakness of the Communist world is its unwillingness to permit the free flow of ideas. Yet there are those in our midst who would have us emulate them.

For example, those who periodically suggest that we must have state censorship of textbooks in Illinois have a misunderstanding of the function of our government, and fail to comprehend our greatest asset. "The melting pot strength" of our country was not, as some believe, simply a breeding process by which the Swede, and the Italian, and the German intermarried. "The melting pot strength" of the United States has been that all of these people brought their ideas, and in this cross-fire of ideas we were able to freely pick what we felt were the finest.

Stopping this free flow of ideas is not only unwise, it is also immoral. Belief in the value of each individual must bring with it the respect for his right to express his views. To do otherwise is to deny him his individuality.

4. Government has an obligation to help the helpless.

To some people the test of morality in government is simply one of honesty. You can vote against measures to help the racial minorities, the hungry, the mentally retarded, and those otherwise oppressed, so long as you don't steal a dollar.

While I don't favor corruption, this simple formula is far from adequate in our complex society.

Is it morally right to ignore the fact that we place the Negro into a ghetto? Are our standards of help for the mentally retarded adequate, when often they are treated worse than cattle? The questions continue, and it is un­fortunately easier to dig up problems than solutions. But one answer should be apparent: ignoring these problems is wrong.

The controversial play "The Deputy" is not an accu­rate portrayal of history, but its basic moral is true: people who ignore great need and injustice are respon­sible for their existence. And sometimes those who cry "welfare state" comfort us more than they disturb us, for they imply we are already doing too much to help the helpless.

Let's look at the facts in just one important area: world hunger. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations and the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdahl are talking about "mass starvation" in the coming decade. We know that the majority of people alive today are going to die before their time either for lack of food or for lack of protein in their food. Poverty beyond our borders is growing at an astounding rate. More than 60% of the people of the world today have a per capita annual income of less than $100.

While this alarming situation exists, we in the United States become richer and richer each year, and spend less and less — both in absolute and relative terms — to help the world's poor. Following World War II the United States spent approximately 2% of its gross national pro­duct on the Marshall Plan, which turned out ultimately to be an investment in our own prosperity. For fiscal year 1966, when the trouble spots like South Vietnam are excluded, we will spend about 1/5 of one per cent of our gross national product to help the poor beyond our borders. The Christian-Jewish portion of the world com­prises less than 20% of the world population, yet has about 75% of the world's wealth.

While I fully realize the political popularity of being against foreign aid, we must recognize that we are doing less and less to help the growing number of poor, and we continue such a policy at our own peril. The division between the world's "haves" and "have nots" must be bridged. We owe our collective conscience and we owe the future a more realistic measure of response to world poverty.

And this is but one area where we have a moral impera­tive to do more to help the helpless, to shake loose from our middle class indifference.

Perhaps Adlai Stevenson's hero Abraham Lincoln, more than any other American, embodies the blending of politics and morality to which we look in retrospect with pride. Certainly no American document is such a moving mixture of the two as is his second inaugural address.

The speech which projected Lincoln onto the national stage more than any other was delivered at Cooper Union in 1859. Perhaps there he best summarized the admoni­tion that each of us needs: "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."

Adlai Stevenson would expect no less of us.

We should expect no less of ourselves.


At the time he wrote this essay, Paul Simon was Editor of The Troy (Illinois) Tribune and Member of the Illinois State Senate. In 1985, he was elected to the US Senate in which he served until 1997.

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