Little Caesars in the Senate

by | Mar 4, 2002

A “little Caesar,” before it referred to a pizza delivery mascot, used to refer to a petty official — or gangster — with delusions of grandeur, the type who seeks power for the pleasure of abusing it. The Enron investigation is making it clear that the Senate is full of these characters. At first, when […]

A “little Caesar,” before it referred to a pizza delivery mascot, used to refer to a petty official — or gangster — with delusions of grandeur, the type who seeks power for the pleasure of abusing it. The Enron investigation is making it clear that the Senate is full of these characters. At first, when I saw all of these senators dragging executives from Enron and Arthur Andersen before their subcommittees, for the sole purpose of wagging their fingers and calling these people names before a national audience, I thought this grandstanding was just for publicity, an easy way to make the folks back home think they’re standing up for the little guy. Then I saw exactly the same behavior in three other unrelated, or tangentially related, cases, and I realized there was more to it. These senators don’t berate prominent witnesses just as a cynical ploy to get votes back home. They do it because they enjoy it. Consider, for example, Robert Byrd’s recent outburst at Paul O’Neill. Mr. O’Neill is a dignified and accomplished businessman, and he is also the nation’s secretary of the Treasury, which ought to entitle him to a certain degree of respect on the floor of the Senate. Instead, Sen. Byrd, using an innocuous cartoon in a Treasury department budget report as his launching pad, berated O’Neill as a representative of “corporate boardrooms” in contrast to the saintly poor folk of West Virginia. His constituents, Byrd fumed, are “not CEOs of multibillion-dollar corporations. In time of need, they come to us” — that is, to politicians like Byrd. He repeated, “the people come to us.” Byrd all but pounded his chest as he proclaimed himself the spokesman and savior of the little guy against corporate predators like O’Neill. O’Neill, unfortunately, took the bait. Caught off guard and clearly upset, he declared: “I started my life in a house without water or electricity. So I don’t cede to you the high moral ground of not knowing what life is like in the ditch.” O’Neill might have been better off questioning whether Byrd’s ditch-worship really is the moral high-ground. Such a line of inquiry might even help explain why the people of West Virginia are still so poor despite the billions in federal spending Byrd has poured into their state to build bridges, highways, and courthouses named after himself. A similar passion play occurred in a judicial confirmation hearing for Charles Pickering. The judge’s appointment to the federal bench is opposed by liberal “civil rights” groups who don’t think he’s sympathetic enough to affirmative action. They began by trying to smear him as a racist, but when blacks from Pickering’s home district overwhelmingly endorsed him, that fell flat. So they have reverted to grilling him about a phone call he made to federal prosecutors asking them to clarify their policy in a plea-bargaining case — potentially a minor violation of judicial rules. This has made the poor judge into the object of a series of by-now-familiar harangues before the Judiciary Committee. Then Attorney General John Ashcroft was hauled up, a few days ago, to explain why he recused himself from any direct supervision of the Justice Department’s Enron investigation, on the grounds that he had received contributions from Enron during his recent Senate campaign. When Ashcroft explained that he believed the recusal was necessary “given the totality of the circumstances,” Sen. Fritz Hollings replied, “That sounds like the Fifth Amendment a lot of these (Enron) guys are taking” — a pathetically transparent attempt at guilt through association. Ashcroft had a better sense of proportion than O’Neill. Through Hollings’ lashing, Ashcroft was trying his best to suppress a bemused smile — the smile of a former senator who knows all about his colleagues’ childish games. All of these examples shed light on the motives for the current Enron grandstanding. There is certainly no substantive reason for a dozen separate congressional investigations into the accounting of one private company. Part of the motive for this frenzy is the attempt to exploit the Enron case for pre-existing goals: campaign finance reform, attacks on the Bush energy plan, mid-term electioneering. But part of the motive is also psychological. It is the power-lust of those who enjoy hauling the high and mighty before their tribunal and calling them names — knowing that the victims have to put up with it, because, after all, they’re senators. What’s the point of getting all of that power if you can’t be a little Caesar?

Robert Tracinski was a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute from 2000 to 2004. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Mr. Tracinski is editor and publisher of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily, which offer daily news and analysis from a pro-reason, pro-individualist perspective. To receive a free 30-day trial of the TIA Daily and a FREE pdf issue of the Intellectual Activist please go to and enter your email address.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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