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I assume that most of this column's readers revere Winston Churchill as one of history's great heroes, as do I. That's why I was intrigued this week when I chanced upon an article written four years ago by British historian Andrew Roberts for The Spectator, in which he describes two less well-known details of the great man's life, from the period before he saved the Free World from the Nazis.
In 1938, Churchill - then a much-ostracized and almost over-the-hill member of Parliament - was deep in debt and about to sell his beloved home, Chartwell. To his rescue arrived Sir Henry Strakosch, an influential financier, who extended Churchill a loan of 18,000 (roughly $800,000 in today's money).
It is unclear whether Churchill ever returned the loan, but Sir Henry, who died in 1943, bequeathed him a further 20,000 in his will. Politicians have been forced to resign in recent years for accepting much more paltry loans; but even worse, it turns out, was lurking in Churchill's past.
In 1923, Churchill had been paid 5,000 - also a handsome sum in those days - by two oil companies so that he would approach prime minister Stanley Baldwin and suggest a merger between them and a third oil company that was controlled by the British government. Churchill wasn't a minister at the time, but was nevertheless an active politician with every intention to return to office. Furthermore, in a previous post, he had had major influence on Britain's oil policy. A number of quotes indicate that he was aware that there was something not quite kosher about his involvement. But he needed the money, and Baldwin was receptive.
Given today's media and legal environment, it is hard to believe that Churchill would have been allowed to stay in politics following either of these episodes. By this generation's standards, his career would have been over. The implications of this are unthinkable: Churchill would have not been around to call Britain to its Finest Hour.
The point Roberts makes in his article is that most people going into politics are fundamentally decent, and quite capable of rising above any conflicting interests that might be perceived from their personal and financial dealings. Puritanical standards, he argues, discourage worthwhile candidates from entering politics.
Now, as much as I enjoy his writing, I would prefer to use the historical anecdotes he raises to prove a different point about politicians - though ultimately I agree with his conclusion.
Our ancient sages had a very realistic view of human affairs: "Whoever is greater than his fellow man, his lusts are greater, too."
In other words, we shouldn't be surprised when our leaders turn out to have even greater failings than we lesser mortals have.
IN A week during which we learn of another apartment Prime Minister Ehud Olmert bought at a suspiciously low price; are privy to new revelations in the unfolding saga of President Moshe Katsav; and hear of charges being brought against Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Tzahi Hanegbi on corrupt appointments in the Environment Ministry (I've probably lost track of other developments in any one of half-a-dozen other ongoing investigations into the affairs of Israel's high and mighty), it is natural for us to yearn for a purer species of politician. But judging by recent and past history, this is the one species of politician that doesn't exist in nature.
As painful as it is to admit, successful and effective leaders are very seldom, if ever, squeaky clean. Churchill is far from being the only example.
Nor does it appear that the public is all that interested in having totally unblemished politicians. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon enjoyed immense popularity during and after his tenure, in spite of suspected corruption. And recent opinion polls give opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu and Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman high ratings, in spite of clouds of suspicion hanging over each of them. Netanyahu, as prime minister, was the target of two major investigations into political and personal corruption. Lieberman is still under investigation for accepting bribes. To be fair, charges were never brought against Netanyahu, though former attorney-general Elyakim Rubinstein issued stern words about his conduct; and Lieberman's investigation has been going nowhere for years.
Old-timers reminisce about the good old days of prime ministers like David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, neither of whom retired with any considerable wealth. But Ben-Gurion covered up for a corrupt son who wouldn't have reached high rank in the police force with a different surname. And Begin had his own financial scandal with Herut's corrupt Tel Hai fund.
While we're on the subject of Begin: His son, Benny, is routinely held up as the epitome of the honest politician. But Begin Junior, with his uncompromising values, completely failed at leaving a mark on Israeli politics before returning to his geological research.
Former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's diehards regularly remind us of how he immediately resigned after his wife, Leah, was charged with having an illegal bank account. What they forget to mention was that the couple at first tried to deny its existence - and that the question of whether Rabin evaded taxes owed on handsome lecture fees in the US was never seriously investigated.
DOES THIS mean that we must accept the fact that all politicians are basically corrupt, and shut down the fraud squads? Of course not. Not where real criminal acts are proven. Just that we should take into account that many of the zealous investigators and prosecutors who believed it possible to go after certain politicians ended up frustrated after wasting millions of taxpayers' shekels.
This is because, for the most part, our leaders' misdeeds lie in the wide gray area that covers legality and ethics. In a democracy, it is ultimately the duty of the media to reveal what they can, and for the voters to punish through the power of the ballot box.