The Pulse: The risk-takers of politics

What is it about politicians? Do they possess a certain personality type that makes them more amenable to graft than, say, a group of accountants, engineers, busboys, or carpenters? That's what I'm wondering while reading The Inquirer's extraordinary coverage of the probe ended by Attorney General Kathleen Kane.

The published account, drawn from official case summaries made by investigators with direct quotes from Tyron B. Ali's covert tapes, suggests that Ali had relative ease in allegedly getting legislators to take envelopes containing cash.

Typical of the lack of hesitancy was the apparent response of Thomasine Tynes, then the president judge of Philadelphia Traffic Court, who, when handed a $2,052 bracelet, reportedly said: "Oh, my God, I don't believe you. Oh my goodness . . . I've never had nothing like this."

However, these five individuals were never the investigation's focus, according to a person close to the investigation with whom I spoke last week: "We could have done that until the cows came home." Instead, the investigation had a broader, long-term focus predicated on relationship-building, "not pinching individual legislators," said this individual.

Indeed, investigators say this wasn't about individual lawmakers, which is why they take umbrage with Kane having played the race card. Their effort was born of frustration that, despite having racked up 23 convictions of both Republicans and Democrats in Bonusgate and Computergate, there was no change in the culture of Pennsylvania politics. So they set their sights larger, intending to let Ali spread money around, ingratiate himself, and see what would happen if the faux lobbyist set up offices in Harrisburg.

Too bad the sting didn't run its course. Based upon the limited reluctance encountered by Ali when he handed out cash, there would have been plenty of takers. And, arguably, more than if investigators had tried to tempt accountants, engineers, busboys, and carpenters. According to one expert, that has something to do with the type of risk-taker who seeks elective office.

Frank Farley is a Temple psychology professor and former president of the American Psychological Association. He told me that the basis of any discussion about this scandal is the concept of risk, and tolerance for risk. He has coined the term Type T Behavior to describe the personality of big risk-taking. The T stands for thrill, and Big T individuals can account for much of our enormous creativity on one hand and crime on the other. Politics, by its nature, is attractive to risk-takers.

"There is a lot of uncertainty and risk in the political career," Farley said. "There is no significant job security. You can lose the next election and not know exactly why, hence the uncertainty. And there is a requirement that is always in the top 10 fears of Americans - speaking in public, whether via media or onstage, where you may have to handle unpredictable questions and your career may end due to an answer or your behavior. There is often much travel and interruptions in personal life, and you are always meeting new people and issues, which leads to more uncertainty. You live in a fishbowl with relentless scrutiny."

Which is why most people don't want to be a politician. This does not mean that all politicians are criminals, but according to Farley, there are two major features of Type T risk-taking behavior, T-plus vs. T-minus. T-plus behavior is positive, often creative, charismatic behavior we often want in our politicians (we don't want wimps or wallflowers). T-minus behavior is negative, destructive, sometimes criminal. Both T-plus and T-minus involve risk-taking, one good, one bad. But sometimes one politician can show both sides of this personality, and can't easily stop himself or herself.

"Corruption, in my view, is a form of T-minus behavior, destructive taking of risks that are often criminal," Farley said. "I am convinced, after having studied political behavior for a long time, that the risk-taking personality and behavior is a key ingredient in much of that corruption and destructive behavior."

To that expert opinion, I would add another factor. Namely, this is what happens when we're represented by a permanent political class. A person close to the investigation told me last week that we have "totally lost touch with what representative democracy was supposed to be about." He's right.

Democracy in our country hasn't developed according to plan. The idea was that we'd pick the best and brightest, those very successful in life, who would serve despite reluctance because of an understanding that the needs of the community required their service for a limited amount of time. And once their obligation was completed, they would go home and resume their productive lives outside the government. Those days ended long ago. Today, we have too many drawn to a risky profession for all the wrong reasons.


The Pulse:

THE PULSE | MICHAEL SMERCONISH
Michael Smerconish can be heard from 9 a.m. to noon on Sirius XM's POTUS Channel 124, and seen hosting "Smerconish" 9 a.m. Saturdays on CNN.