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Thursday, June 23, 2005 | From Washington to San Diego, Americans’ trust in government is in steep decline. There’s hardly a week that goes by without some new story about elected officials at all levels of government putting personal interest ahead of the public good, using public office to feather their nests and reward friends, family, party and campaign contributors. It has become a national disease.

American government has long had an undercurrent of corruption, and any high school history student recognizes names like Credit Mobilier, Boss Tweed, Mark Hanna, Tammany Hall, Teapot Dome and Watergate. But we flatter ourselves that the situation has improved with time, and that government reforms plus the vigilance of a watchdog media has contributed to greater honesty in government. Maybe we can’t stop them, but we can catch them.

The fact is, however, that public trust in government is slipping. Going through polls to see what Americans thought about recent media stories involving CBS News, Newsweek and the use of anonymous sources, I was surprised to see that trust in government has slipped drastically relative to trust in the media over the past two decades. The media’s use of anonymous sources, according to a recent ABC-Washington Post poll, is approved by two-thirds of Americans precisely because they feel it helps shine daylight on government shenanigans.

Where were these disapproving voices in November? Were they not paying attention, did they not vote, did they believe it was more important to support a party than principled government? Did they put pet issues like creationism, stem cells, inheritance taxes and Mount Soledad crosses ahead of honesty, probity, balance and transparency in government?

In San Diego, we can no longer point only at Washington when we talk of bad government. Our mayor, incompetent, is resigning. City council members are charged with taking bribes from what used to be called the mob. A jury will decide if they are guilty or innocent of the charges, but they are at least guilty of criminal stupidity. Our city attorney has proved to be such a loose cannon that he cannot even keep his own department functioning. And then there is Randy Cunningham, the Rancho Santa Fe congressman who likes to be known as “Duke,” because he thinks he’s John Wayne.

Give Marcus Stern credit. The U-T Washington reporter somehow got his story on Cunningham’s flimflam past a Union-Tribune management that for years has regarded its primary role as protecting Republicans in office. How did he do it?

My guess is that there are people at the Union-Tribune who are fed up. They’ve seen the silencing of voices at the newspaper that did their jobs and they’ve seen the effect that silencing has had on the newspaper’s reputation. When I quit the newspaper in December over a column killed by owner David Copley, I said I hoped some good would come from my resignation. Maybe it has.

A word about the Union-Tribune management: Neil Morgan doesn’t talk about this so I’ll do it for him. Without Morgan, there would have been no Helen and David Copley. It was Morgan who encouraged the 30-year-old Helen Kinney, who’d come here from Iowa with her two-year-old son David and whom he’d met downtown in 1953, to apply for a job at the Union-Tribune as secretary. She got the job and later married the boss, Jim Copley, who adopted her son.

When David Copley allowed his accountant, who runs the company, to fire Morgan last year, he was taking vengeance against the man who made him into the wealthy Republican socialite-publisher with fast cars and several houses in La Jolla that he is. Had Morgan lost his stuff, one would not complain. There comes a time for all of us. But Morgan was not fired because he couldn’t do the job, but because he did it too well – as he shows in the Voice week after week. The accountant didn’t like that.

Cunningham is as inadequate a congressional representative as a community can have, and like his colleague, Duncan Hunter, hides his inadequacies behind the reputation of “being a friend of the military.” For years, no matter what incompetence that phrase hid, it was enough to win Union-Tribune support and get elected in San Diego. Older San Diegans remember how Jim Copley and the Union-Tribune passionately opposed construction of the Coronado Bridge in the 1960s because one, the Navy said it was a risk to national security, and two, it was the brainchild of Gov. Pat Brown, a Democrat.

We’ll find out next November – if Cunningham has the bad taste to stand again – whether San Diego is still willing to elect just anyone because he is a Republican. The people of Rancho Santa Fe and Del Mar will have to decide: Cunningham may be a knave, but he’s a Republican knave.

James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune, and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Most recently, he was a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.

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