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Congress, Ethics and Mark Twain

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Congress, Ethics and Mark Twain

Only three days into the new year and the political shenanigans start again in Washington. (I like to believe they stopped for the Holidays!!)


Even though the GOP now seems to have pulled its plan to gut the independent ethics panel, their antics are enough to raise the blood pressure.

When commenting on my book Suppose You Were an Idiot… Mark Twain on Politics and Polticians, I am often asked what would Twain say of today’s  current set of “vultures that now infest the filthy den called Congress.”

As a man who had a decidedly jaundiced (he would say accurate view) of politics, he probably would not be surprised. Here is a selection of this thoughts that might just as well have been written today.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. 

“It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”  

—Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar.

In The Gilded Age.  which Twain might have sub-titled Drain the Swamp, he rails against corruption

“That is true, Colonel. To be sure you can buy now and then a Senator or a Representative but they do not know it is wrong, and so they are not ashamed of it. They are gentle, and confiding and childlike, and in my opinion these are qualities that ennoble them far more than any amount of sinful sagacity could.” 

And in a piece that could have been written specifically for this ethics committee imbroglio…..

“I think Congress always tries to do as near right as it can, according to its lights. A man can’t ask any fairer, than that. The first preliminary it always starts out on, is, to clean itself, so to speak. It will arraign two or three dozen of its members, or maybe four or five dozen, for taking bribes to vote for this and that and the other bill last winter.”  

“It goes up into the dozens, does it?”  

“Well, yes; in a free country likes ours, where any man can run for Congress and anybody can vote for him, you can’t expect immortal purity all the time—it ain’t in nature. Sixty or eighty or a hundred and fifty people are bound to get in who are not angels in disguise, as young Hicks the correspondent says; but still it is a very good average; very good indeed. As long as it averages as well as that, I think we can feel very well satisfied. Even in these days, when people growl so much and the newspapers are so out of patience, there is still a very respectable minority of honest men in Congress.”  

“Why a respectable minority of honest men can’t do any good, Colonel.”  

“Oh, yes it can, too”  

“Why, how?”  

“Oh, in many ways, many ways.”  

“But what are the ways?”  

“Well—I don’t know—it is a question that requires time; a body can’t answer every question right off-hand. But it does do good. I am satisfied of that.”  

“All right, then; grant that it does good; go on with the preliminaries.”  

“That is what I am coming to. First, as I said, they will try a lot of members for taking money for votes. That will take four weeks.”  

“Yes, that’s like last year; and it is a sheer waste of the time for which the nation pays those men to work—that is what that is. And it pinches when a body’s got a bill waiting.”  

“A waste of time, to purify the fountain of public law? Well, I never heard anybody express an idea like that before. But if it were, it would still be the fault of the minority, for the majority don’t institute these proceedings. There is where that minority becomes an obstruction—but still one can’t say it is on the wrong side.—Well, after they have finished the bribery cases, they will take up cases of members who have bought their seats with money. That will take another four weeks.”  

“Very good; go on. You have accounted for two-thirds of the session.”  

“Next they will try each other for various smaller irregularities, like the sale of appointments to West Point cadetships, and that sort of thing—mere trifling pocket-money enterprises that might better, be passed over in silence, perhaps, but then one of our Congresses can never rest easy till it has thoroughly purified itself of all blemishes—and that is a thing to be applauded.”  

“How long does it take to disinfect itself of these minor impurities?”  

“Well, about two weeks, generally.”  

“So Congress always lies helpless in quarantine ten weeks of a session. That’s encouraging. Colonel, poor Laura will never get any benefit from our bill. Her trial will be over before Congress has half purified itself.   

—And doesn’t it occur to you that by the time it has expelled all its impure members there, may not be enough members left to do business legally?”  

“Why I did not say Congress would expel anybody.”“Well won’t it expel anybody?”  

“Not necessarily. Did it last year? It never does. That would not be regular.”  

“Then why waste all the session in that tomfoolery of trying members?”  

“It is usual; it is customary; the country requires it.”  

“Then the country is a fool, I think.”  

“Oh, no. The country thinks somebody is going to be expelled.”  

“Well, when nobody is expelled, what does the country think then?”  

“By that time, the thing has strung out so long that the country is sick and tired of it and glad to have a change on any terms. But all that inquiry is not lost. It has a good moral effect.”  

“Who does it have a good moral effect on?”  

“Well—I don’t know. On foreign countries, I think. We have always been under the gaze of foreign countries. There is no country in the world, sir, that pursues corruption as inveterately as we do. There is no country in the world whose representatives try each other as much as ours do, or stick to it as long on a stretch. I think there is something great in being a model for the whole civilized world, Washington.”  

“You don’t mean a model; you mean an example.”  

“Well, it’s all the same; it’s just the same thing. It shows that a man can’t be corrupt in this country without sweating for it, I can tell you that.”  

“Hang it, Colonel, you just said we never punish anybody for villainous practices.”  

“But good God we try them, don’t we! Is it nothing to show a disposition to sift things and bring people to a strict account? I tell you it has its effect.”  

“Oh, bother the effect!—What is it they do do? How do they proceed? You know perfectly well—and it is all bosh, too. Come, now, how do they proceed?”  

“Why they proceed right and regular—and it ain’t bosh, Washington, it ain’t bosh. They appoint a committee to investigate, and that committee hears evidence three weeks, and all the witnesses on one side swear that the accused took money or stock or something for his vote. Then the accused stands up and testifies that he may have done it, but he was receiving and handling a good deal of money at the time and he doesn’t remember this particular circumstance—at least with sufficient distinctness to enable him to grasp it tangibly. So of course the thing is not proven—and that is what they say in the verdict. They don’t acquit, they don’t condemn. They just say, ‘Charge not proven.’ It leaves the accused in a kind  of a shaky condition before the country, it purifies Congress, it satisfies everybody, and it doesn’t seriously hurt anybody. It has taken a long time to perfect our system, but it is the most admirable in the world, now.”“So one of those long stupid investigations always turns out in that lame silly way. Yes, you are correct. I thought maybe you viewed the matter differently from other people. Do you think a Congress of ours could convict the devil of anything if he were a member?”  

“My dear boy, don’t let these damaging delays prejudice you against Congress. Don’t use such strong language; you talk like a newspaper. Congress has inflicted frightful punishments on its members—now you know that. When they tried Mr. Fairoaks, and a cloud of witnesses proved him to be—well, you know what they proved him to be—and his own testimony and his own confessions gave him the same character, what did Congress do then?—come!”  

“Well, what did Congress do?”  

“You know what Congress did, Washington. Congress intimated plainly enough, that they considered him almost a stain upon their body; and without waiting ten days, hardly, to think the thing over, the rose up and hurled at him a resolution declaring that they   

disapproved of his conduct! Now you know that.”  

“It was a terrific thing—there is no denying that. If  he had been proven guilty of theft, arson, licentiousness, infanticide, and defiling graves, I believe they would have suspended him for two days.”  

“You can depend on it. Congress is vindictive, Congress is savage, sir, when it gets waked up once. It will go to any length to vindicate its honor at such a time.”  



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Conor Cunneen is also author

What Mark Twain Learned Me ’bout Public Speakin’

“When I say I’ll learn (‘Teach’ is not in the river vocabulary) a man the river, I mean it. And you can depend on it, I’ll learn him or kill him.” Life on the Mississippi  – Mark Twain

Utilizing a unique and memorable MARK TWAIN acronym, author Conor Cunneen demonstrates what the Dean of American Humorists learned him bout public speakin !

MARK ——– BEFORE you go on stage

Message preparation

Audience research and knowledge

Relate to audience

Know your objective


Titter and humor wins the audience

Wait – The power of the Pause

Anecdotes connect

Involve, Inform, Inspire your audience

Narration and stagecraft.

BUY: What Mark Twain Learned Me ’bout Public Speakin’