The ends and the means

Listening to Vince Fumo in a radio interview last week reminded me of the old Robert Penn Warren novel All the King’s Men. The Huey Long character explains that he might have been ethically challenged, but he performed good works. The way he put it, it took a little mud to build a hospital.

Fumo has gotten the streets cleaned and lots of other goodies for his constituents. And maybe it took a little mud to do it.

Not that Vince admits he did anything wrong. To listen to Fumo, his greatest sin has been to piss off the Inquirer. The way Vince puts it, every time the newspaper wants to win a Pulitzer, it does a nine-part series on him.

Suing Peco, getting voluntary contributions from the utility giant and the money winding up with Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, otherwise known as Vince Fumo Charities and Good Works, it all gets a little confusing. It gets a little more confusing when you throw in the charge that Fumo might have tried the same thing and failed with Verizon. And there is the little matter of all those expensive meals at La Veranda.

But what you have to keep in mind is, according to Vince, he didn’t benefit at all from any of this stuff, but his constituents are the envy of everybody else. Hey, Gov. Rendell is angry that he didn’t think of it first. Maybe if he had, those hick towns in western Pennsylvania would love Rendell like we do. Fumo says even his Darth Vader nemesis, John Perzel, is trying to do it.

Fumo seemed to bristle at the suggestion that Peco might have been expecting something in return for being so generous in its donations to Citizens Alliance. He pointed out to the interviewer, Marty Moss-Coane of WHYY’s Radio Times, that he — Vince Fumo — still says nasty things about Peco. (Columnist’s note: Powerful men always talk in the third person about themselves.)

For the most part, though, Fumo kept his temper in check throughout the interview. He kept emphasizing the positive to the show’s callers. To one critic, Fumo politely pointed out that he hoped upon reflection the caller would see the light — or words to that effect. After all, the guy’s utility bills are cheaper because of Fumo’s actions. Vince made the guy sound like an ingrate in a college ethics class.

Mayor Street sounded a discordant note. He wondered about the appearance of a powerful state senator in essence putting the squeeze on a utility that needs political help, even if it is for things like schools, libraries and cheaper electric bills. And let’s face it, who should know better about shabby ethics than our mayor, whose "pay-to-play" motto is rumored to be tattooed on one of his unmentionable areas?

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s do-gooders who don’t realize who’s buttering their bread. All this business of whether the ends justify the means can be so naive. Sure, maybe Peco kicked in because they’re afraid to piss off Vince Fumo. So what? How else can you provide constituent services these days when no politician is going to raise taxes? Vince can’t help it if he’s a powerful guy, can he?

He uses his power to do good despite the do-gooders. If they want a saint, let them elect St. Francis of Assisi and see then how long things in their district would run smoothly — although, to be fair, the cats and dogs in those neighborhoods might feel a lot better with St. Francis.

Fumo has convinced me. Politics is a dirty business, and if you want to get something done, sometimes you have to get your hands dirty. I like Vince’s explanation. He is beset on all sides by enemies like the Inquirer and John Dougherty. Fumo even showed his generous side by offering to pay Dougherty’s entrance fee to get him to run against Vince in the next election.

According to Vince, Dr. James Tayoun, who has announced that he will run against Fumo, is just a front man for Dougherty. Even Vince would agree, I’m sure, that the doc does have a good bedside manner. Not only that, Tayoun has a ready-made issue going for him with the flight of physicians from the state because of high malpractice insurance, and he has a recognizable political name.

Maybe at some point in the campaign, Vince and the doctor can debate whether the ends justify the means.

In the meantime, Vince will continue to do his best, working deals at good restaurants so his constituents can have a better life — and if Verizon wises up, so much the better.

Fumo vs. Tayoun may not be Ali-Frazier, but it has cachet. Hey, a good race means the voters will be the winners. And maybe the Inquirer will even win another Pulitzer.