Millions are gathering in the National Mall this morning to bear witness to the swearing in of Barack Obama. There's anticipation in the air that Mr. Obama is something unique and new. A different kind of politician.
He's certainly different (Joe Scarborough mentioned this morning that Obama is less prone to the sin of pride, which undos so many politicians). But the incentives of office haven't changed. Norris Cotton, a New Hampshire senator from the fifties to the seventies, warned colleagues of smelling of the marble, as in the white marble that covers DC. "And when you can smell it, you'll like it. And you'll be ruined for life." Great unchecked power leads to abuse and despite the Constitution's efforts, much of the power in Washington is unchecked.
This goes double for the presidency, whose role has expanded over the centuries but is now joined with a sympathetic congress. It's entirely possible that Mr. Obama, bending to expectations that he's a different kind of politician, will rise above such abuses. But the hero worship is strong and the people euphoric. Unless we become much more scrutinizing, he'll smell the marble.