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 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.
- Student Handout #1: Democratic National Committee e-mail, “We Need Your Help to Beat John McCain.”
- Student Handout #2: Washington Post, “The Abramoff Affair: A Timeline.”
- Student Handout #3: Roll Call, “McCain Won’t Target Members.”
- Student Handout #4: United States Senate Select Committee on Ethics, “Senate Ethics Manual.”
- Student Handout #5: United States Senate Select Committee on Ethics, “Letter to Fred Wertheimer, President of Democracy 21.”
- Student Handout #6: FactCheck.org, “Smear or Be Smeared?”
- Make enough copies of Student Handouts #1 and #6 for each student. Pass out Student Handout #1 at the beginning of Exercise #1.
- 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.
- 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 FactCheck.org.
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 FactCheck.org article, “Smear or Be Smeared?” (handout #6) to see whether their assessments agree with FactCheck.org’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 former staff writer at FactCheck.org, a project of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. Before 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.
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