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Sarah Chayes' New Book Examines 'Corruption In America'


The writer Sarah Chayes was in her kitchen one evening in 2016, listening to the radio. And she heard something on the news that astonished her. The Supreme Court had overturned the conviction of Virginia's former governor Bob McDonnell. Lower courts had found McDonnell guilty of corruption. Now, Chayes had investigated corruption in places like Afghanistan and Nigeria. And she wondered, was the U.S. becoming corrupt? Her new book is called On Corruption In America: And What Is At Stake." I talked to her last week, and we started with the man who set her off on this hunt, Governor Bob McDonnell.

SARAH CHAYES: This was a man who had exchanged loans, gifts, payment for the wedding of his daughter, rides in Ferraris for a kind of shady-looking business man who was trying to peddle some kind of weird pill. He had been convicted at the district court level. His conviction was confirmed at the appeals court level. And the Supreme Court overturned it 8-0. And that's what blew me away. And what really concerned me also about that was a diverging between what regular, ordinary Americans understand to be corruption and a kind of elite obliviousness. And I knew that that spelled danger for this country.

KING: When did the United States become a corrupt country?

CHAYES: There are two periods. One was broadly understood the Gilded Age - from approximately the early 1870s until the immediate post-World-War-II period. And it started taking off again in approximately 1980. And the first stage of it was a change in attitudes toward money, where money becomes something admirable in and of itself, not as something that we seek for our security and comfort and the well-being of our children, but rather, it becomes a way of measuring our social status.

KING: You write in the book very convincingly about a movie, "Risky Business," that had never occurred to me as anything other than - I don't know - a movie we watch at sleepovers 'cause Tom Cruise was super cute. You write that that movie is emblematic of something that was happening in this country in the 1980s and the ways in which Americans were changing their minds about some really important things.

CHAYES: The movie is set in an affluent household. The parents give a damn about their little, crystal egg, and they give a damn about their son getting into Princeton in order to have a comfortable, affluent lifestyle. He comes into contact with a prostitute, whom he calls a great capitalist. And he turns his parents' house into a brothel, wherein, you know, he turns thousands of dollars in a single night. And Cruise does very badly in his Princeton interview. However, the interviewer walks out with a girl and lets him into Princeton because Princeton could use a guy like that, meaning the way to make it big is breaking the rules, is ridiculing hard work and education.

And what's so incredible is this movie came out just as the first in our contemporary series of stock market crashes and disasters struck, which was the savings and loan crisis. And the savings and loan crisis was the result of a pattern of systemic fraud whereby bank owners looted their establishments from the inside. And, you know, this was the first in a series of 20th century and 21st century stock market disasters that culminated in the Great Recession.

KING: Disasters that have come to define our lives. And this is a point you make in the book - how much corrupt behaviors on the part of a few people have shaped our lives.

CHAYES: Yes. And worse than that. I mean, looking at the Gilded Age as an example, where, again, it was a tight-knit network of gigantic, megacorporate executives rewriting the rules, bending the 14th Amendment, which was about the Equal Protection Clause, away from protecting freed slaves in order to protect corporations from strikers for decent working conditions. That kind of a network - and it went on for 70 years. And there were tremendous resistance efforts. I mean, there were incredibly sophisticated, overlapping, thoughtful, persistent, creative resistance movements. And they didn't make a dent. They didn't make a dent. And what I concluded was that it was this series of global catastrophes that shocked the world out of this kind of kleptocratic syndrome. It was World War I, the Depression, World War II and a pandemic that makes the current pandemic look like peanuts. That's what it took.

KING: Americans who are concerned about corruption, mad about corruption - what do we do?

CHAYES: I think there's a combination of no longer putting up with considering people respectable who follow certain business models. You know, I do think the #MeToo movement - the idea that some things just aren't acceptable anymore - that should go for certain business models. But I also do think that public reforms are needed. Ethics, norms have been just blown out of the water. So a lot of things have to get turned into law. And I don't see, to be very honest, much energy in this direction in the current Democratic candidate for president, obviously not in the current Republican Party, as it is currently configured - that, you know, corruption is kind of the operating system. But I do believe that across political lines, American citizens need to join forces and demand better of our leadership and just demand it and keep demanding it.

KING: Sarah Chayes, author of the vital new book "On Corruption In America: And What Is At Stake." Sarah, thank you so much for being with us.

CHAYES: Thank you, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBOHANDS' "STRANGE TIMES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.