Combating the Culture of Corruption

Combating the Culture of Corruption


It’s a classic American film: the young, idealistic new senator, Jefferson Smith, heads off to Washington where he finds that his boyhood hero, Sen. Joseph Paine, is accepting bribes. Worse still, Mr. Smith finds that none of the other senators really care all that much. In Hollywood, the solution is simple: Jimmy Stewart saves the day. Fast forward 60 years: The corruption is still around, and in a fundraising e-mail, the Democratic National Committee claims that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain is more Joseph Paine than Jefferson Smith. That charge has little basis in reality. In this lesson students will dig into a recent bribery scandal to assess John McCain’s real role in rooting out the culture of corruption.


In this lesson, students will:
  • Examine an e-mail from the Democratic National Committee that attacks John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, for looking the other way during a bribery and corruption scandal.
  • Research McCain’s role as head of the Indian Affairs Committee and explore the history of the investigation into the scandal.
  • Assess whether or not the DNC’s e-mail accurately describes McCain’s actions regarding the scandal.


The Democratic National Committee (or DNC) promotes Democratic candidates for elected offices by providing technical and financial support. Because it is not officially affiliated with any particular campaign, the DNC (like its counterpart, the Republican National Committee) can raise virtually unlimited amounts of money and can use those funds to run advertisements in support of Democratic candidates – or in opposition to their Republican opponents. In an e-mail, DNC chairman Howard Dean appealed for donations while outlining the DNC’s strategy for attacking John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Among the charges, the DNC said that McCain “looked the other way as Jack Abramoff bought and paid for the Republican Party and the culture of corruption.” The claim, however, is a serious distortion of the facts.


  1. Student handout #1: Democratic National Committee e-mail, “We Need Your Help to Beat John McCain.”
  2. Student handout #2: Washington Post, “The Abramoff Affair: A Timeline.”
  3. Student handout #3: Roll Call, “McCain Won’t Target Members.”
  4. Student handout #4: United States Senate Select Committee on Ethics, “Senate Ethics Manual.
  5. Student handout #5: United States Senate Select Committee on Ethics, “Letter to Fred Wertheimer, President of Democracy 21.”
  6. Student handout #6:, “Smear or Be Smeared?


  1. Make enough copies of student handouts #1 and #6 for each student. Pass out student handout #1 at the beginning of exercise #1.
  2. Make packets of student handouts #2 through #5, one per group of 3 to 5 students. Distribute the packets at the beginning of exercise #2.
  3. Pass out student handout #6 after students have reported their findings in exercise #2.


Exercise #1 – Asking the right questions

To the teacher: The DNC’s charge that McCain looked the other way is given without evidence or context. Good reasoners understand that claims have to be backed up by evidence. We have to examine all the facts before we simply accept someone at his or her word – especially when we know that the person making the claim is not unbiased. This exercise asks students to explore the background of the Abramoff investigation and to look specifically at John McCain’s role in that investigation.

Distribute copies of student handout #1, so that students will have the precise language of the DNC e-mail in front of them. After students have read the e-mail, divide the class into groups of 3 to 5 students each. Then ask each group to discuss the following questions:
  • What do you know about Jack Abramoff?
  • What role do you think John McCain played in the scandal? (Note: Press students to be specific here.)
  • Does the e-mail offer any evidence that McCain failed to do anything about Abramoff?
  • What’s your overall impression about McCain’s attitude toward corruption? (Again, press for specifics.) Have the groups report their findings back to the class.
Exercise #2 – Cross-checking / Weighing the Evidence

To the teacher: As your students should have discovered in exercise #1, the DNC e-mail suggests that John McCain turned a blind eye toward his corrupt colleagues. The claim is presented without evidence, but the DNC has sometimes cited a newspaper report to justify its charge. In this exercise, students will look first at a basic timeline of the Abramoff case in order to get some insight into the scandal itself. After looking at the news report that the DNC cites, students will dig a bit deeper to determine whether the evidence presented really does show that McCain looked the other way during the scandal. Finally, students will compare their findings with those of

Keeping the students in their small groups, pass out the packets containing student handouts #2 through #5. Then ask each group to answer the following questions:
  • Did John McCain really refuse to investigate the Abramoff scandal?
  • Why does McCain say that he is not going to investigate his colleagues?
  • Who in the Senate has the jurisdiction to investigate the activities of other Senators?
  • Why was there no Senate investigation into the allegations of illegal and/or unethical behavior of other Senators in connection with Abramoff?
Is the DNC’s charge that McCain looked the other way during the Abramoff scandal accurate?

Have the students report their findings back to the class. Students can then examine the article, “Smear or Be Smeared?” (handout #6) to see whether their assessments agree with’s. Have the students discuss differences (if any).

About the Author

Joe Miller received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Virginia. He is a staff writer at, a project of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. Prior to joining FactCheck, he served as an assistant professor of philosophy at West Point and at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, where he taught logic, critical thinking, ethics and political theory. The winner of an Outstanding Teacher award at UNC-Pembroke and an Outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant award at the University of Virginia, Joe has more than 10 years of experience developing curricula. He is a member of the American Philosophical Association and the Association for Political Theory.

Correlation to National Standards

National Social Studies Standards

X. Civic Ideals and Practices Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic.

Essential Skills for Social Studies
Acquiring Information
A. Reading Skills
1. Comprehension
2. Vocabulary
B. Study Skills
1. Find Information
2. Arrange Information in Usable Forms
C. Reference & Information-Search Skills
2. Special References
D. Technical Skills Unique to Electronic Devices
1. Computer
Organizing and Using Information
A. Thinking Skills
1. Classify Information
2. Interpret Information
3. Analyze Information
4. Summarize Information
5. Synthesize Information
6. Evaluate Information
B. Decision-Making Skills
C. Metacognitive Skills
Interpersonal Relationships & Social Participation
A. Personal Skills
C. Social and Political Participation Skills

Democratic Beliefs and Values
B. Freedoms of the Individual
C. Responsibilities of the Individual

National Mathematics Standards
Number and Operations Standard
Algebra Standard
Data Analysis and Probability Standard
Process Standards
Problem Solving
Standard Connections Standard

National Educational Technology Standards
Profiles for Technology Literate Students
Performance Indicators
2. Make informed choices among technology systems, resources, and services.
7. Routinely and efficiently use online information resources to meet needs for collaboration, research, publication, communication, and productivity.
8. Select and apply technology tools for research, information analysis, problem solving, and decision making in content learning.

Information Literacy Standards
Information Literacy

Standard 1 accesses information efficiently and effectively.
Standard 2 evaluates information critically and competently.
Standard 3 uses information accurately and creatively.
Social Responsibility
Standard 7 recognizes the importance of information to a democratic society.
Standard 8 practices ethical behavior in regard to information and information technology.
Standard 9 participates effectively in groups to pursue and generate information.

English Language Arts Standards
Standard 1 Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment.

Standard 3
Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.

Standard 5 Student employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.

Standard 6
Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique and discuss print and non-print texts.

Standard 7
Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.

Standard 8
Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.

Standard 12
Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).