First, I don’t know Jeff Smith, but according to what I have heard and read, he was an intelligent and conscientious legislator who tried hard to serve his constituents.  Second, if Smith did what he is accused of doing, which seems to be a pretty sure thing right now, then he deserves to pay the full legal penalty. I have no intention of making excuses for dishonest and illegal behavior, and I can understand why progressives might feel betrayed by Smith.

That given, I was absolutely taken aback by a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial which, with little or no concrete evidence, but with a full measure of sanctimony, attributed Smith’s behavior to a desire for personal gain:

One word that comes to mind is venality: Willingness to be bribed or bought off, or to prostitute one’s talents for mercenary considerations.

I don’t know about the Post-Dispatch editorial board, but when I read the indictment against Smith, the charges seemed clear enough: He engaged in unethical behavior during an election and then lied to federal officials to cover it up.  Nowhere in the indictment did I see any reference to Smith’s motives. Perhaps the Post-Dispatch knows something that speaks to this issue that I don’t know about, but, if that’s the case, they weren’t really forthcoming about it.

Instead the Post-Dispatch editorial board writers tried to back up their melodrama by appealing to the well-known fact that it is possible to use political office to feather one’s personal nest. The real clincher for the P-D folks seemed to be that Rod Jetton, while speaker of the Missouri House during the Blunt administration heyday, ran a dubious political consulting firm.  

I don’t know anything about Smith’s motives, but I suspect that his behavior may not be that uncommon and need not be explained by highly speculative claims of venality, but simply by referencing a political culture where lack of integrity and personal and civic betrayal are routinely excused by the  bromide “politics ain’t beanbag.”  

As for venality, if the Post-Dispatch wants to ring that bell, one need only consider how health care reform, which every sane citizen knows to be vital to our continued well-being and prosperity, is being, quite legally, held hostage by the loud voice of the big bucks medical industries, exercising their First Amendment rights straight into the coffers of  compliant congress members.  What Smith allegedly did is illegal, but is it really so much worse than the calculus politicians routinely apply in order to balance civic demands against their desire to be re-elected?