A newborn pariah

Nevada politicians are in high dudgeon as they frantically shed the financial contributions from Harvey Whittemore that they once accepted with alacrity.

Whittemore, a long-time lobbyist who moved into real estate development just in time to be clobbered by the foreclosure collapse that helped cause the recession, has given campaign money to U.S. Sens. Harry Reid and Dean Heller and innumerable other politicians.

Whittemore as a lobbyist always played hardball, often leaving bruised feelings. The way the scientific institute he and his wife founded went after a departed scientist with criminal charges instead of a civil lawsuit had his fingerprints all over it.

But Reid, Heller and company knew he was a tough guy when they took his campaign contributions. It’s not an indictable offense to play rough.

Whittemore is now being sued by some associates from his second career as a developer.

But Reid, Heller and company take money from businesspeople involved in lawsuits all the time. It’s not an indictable offense to be sued.

Whittemore is also being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department, but he has not been indicted or convicted of anything—or, indeed, accused of anything except by some unhappy litigants on the other end of the lawsuits and journalists too free with loaded language.

Harvey Whittemore can take care of himself, but there is a principle at stake here. Rich and powerful (or formerly rich and powerful) people are not exceptions to the Bill of Rights. The politicians who are now treating Whittemore like a pariah are figures we expect to uphold the rule of law in the public performance of their duties.

Harvey Whittemore, like each of us, is entitled to be regarded as innocent under the law until the law proves otherwise. How protective can we expect our leaders to be of our civil liberties if they are busily pre-judging someone they once embraced so enthusiastically?

In disputes like this, politicians often suddenly start acting like innocent, virginal blushing brides when bad publicity puts them into awkward positions. They start cherry-picking who they want to be associated with in the public mind. In her first U.S. Senate campaign, Hillary Clinton accepted contributions from Israeli supporters and returned money from Arab supporters.

Reid, Heller and company are responding to news stories that have accusatory tones and few facts, but they knew Whittemore’s methods of operation when they took his contributions. It would be nice if they responded with greater force to the rights of citizens not to be judged on the basis of rumor and untried lawsuits. If they treat a pal like Harvey Whittemore this way, what chance is there that they will oppose measures like the National Defense Authorization Act and the PATRIOT Act that endanger the civil liberties of all of us? Unfortunately, we already know the answer to that question.