[Richard Painter, guest-blogging, March 25, 2009 at 11:49am] Trackbacks

This theme reminds me of a story about the time a Governor of New York was running for President in 1932. The Governor spent most of his time at campaign rallies, in union halls and among the common people he hoped would vote for him in November. Occasionally, however, he kept his ties to prominent families in New York society, whom he hoped would at least tolerate him in office as "one of us."

One of the Donners, I believe it was William H. Donner, invited the Governor to a family wedding. The Governor accepted on one condition, that there would be no liquor served at the wedding. Prohibition was the law, and a candidate for President could not be caught amongst people who were breaking the law. Donner agreed.

The wedding reception that day was a strange sight. Around the bar stood members of the most prominent families in New York, drinking ice tea and lemonade. They appeared unhappy. Their host Mr. Donner was also unhappy.

Finally, the Governor arrived. He got out of his car, looked around and then acted as if he had forgotten something. He instructed his driver to go back into town. The Governor meanwhile greeted the wedding guests and waited. When his driver returned the Governor retreated into Mr. Donner's library.

After a while, Mr. Donner went to the library to tell the Governor it was time for lunch. Governor Roosevelt was sitting in a leather armchair holding up his glass.

"A drink Mr. Donner?"

"You son of a . .. . !"

F.D.R. was elected that November and took office the following March. Prohibition was repealed. I understand Mr. Donner moved to Canada.

Despite the hypocrisy here, I have some sympathy for both Mr. Donner and Governor Roosevelt. As I discuss in chapter 9 of my book, religious and not-so-religious groups have at various points in our history lobbied hard for federal regulation of personal morality. Prohibition was the culmination of a thirty-year campaign, and the issue influenced elections. Proponents finally got what they wanted, and it was of course a failure.

While federal agents were busy busting up bars in the 1920's, Wall Street was intoxicated in a different way. Much of what was going on in the securities business was already illegal under the common law of fraud. Nobody seemed to care.

This is far afield from the specifics of government ethics regulation, but my point is that there is no point having rules that almost everyone ignores. Doing so encourages disrespect of the law, and disrespect for the law may spill over into other areas where law is a lot more important.

F.D.R. was a brilliant politician. He helped put the finishing touches on repeal of Prohibition so liquid assets could flow through the economy more freely. Then he raised taxes. Meanwhile, in 1933 a group of young Harvard Law School graduates led by Tommy Corcoron assembled over bottles of whisky in a room in Washington's Carlton Hotel to draft the 1933 Securities Act. I know they enjoyed the whisky, particularly when they drafted sections 2, 4 and 5.