Despite the flood of ethics laws and regulations, government ethics departments and the like, fraud, misconduct and bad behavior are hardly subsiding.

The greatest-ever political dirty trickster was Dick Tuck, who made his bones during the 1960 Democratic presidential campaign and became the chief tormentor of Richard Nixon in his subsequent campaigns. His greatest triumphs were (1) pretending he was a Nixon advance man and renting a cavernous hall for a Nixon campaign event to which only a handful of people were expected, and (2) positioning pregnant women in the front row of a Nixon event wearing T-shirts imprinted with an arrow pointing to their bellies accompanied by RMN’s campaign slogan: “Nixon’s The One.”
 
Now, however, political dirty tricks have advanced to a new level that’s way beyond amusing. Vincent Gray, the new mayor of the District of Columbia, is alleged to have paid off a primary opponent with a job offer in return for attacking former Mayor Adrian Fenty. Given the reported ethical lapses that keep coming to light about Gray and too many members of the D.C. City Council (all that need be said is that former mayor Marion Barry is still a member), no one would be shocked if this were true.
 
In neighboring Maryland, former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s unsuccessful 2010 campaign to regain the office is accused of making thousands of fake Democratic “robo-calls” to Democrats on Election Day, telling them to stay home from the polls because his opponent had already won and there was no need for them to vote.
 
I suppose that these nastier tricks are merely a reflection of our times and don’t arouse much public concern or distaste, benumbed as we are by a daily barrage of untruths, hypocrisy, factual distortions and revisionist histories that stream forth from the mouths of opportunistic politicians, even aspiring presidential candidates, and other leaders.
 
If you accept the premise that America is sliding down the ethical slope and yearn for the “good old days” when morality in politics, government, business, religion, the military and the other societal institutions presumably prevailed, you are deluding yourself. The good old days look a lot better from the temporal distance of the present than they actually were. Example: During the Holocaust and World War II, more than 5,000 American and other allied and neutral country companies did a thriving business with the Third Reich and suffered no penalties for their reprehensible behavior.
 
The better question is what to do about it. It may be too late for the current adult generations. We have been inculcated with “getting it over” on others most of our lives, influenced by our role models’ blatant disregard for good conduct and accountability. Despite the flood of ethics laws and regulations, corporate and government ethics departments and the like, fraud, misconduct and bad behavior are hardly subsiding.
 
It is not too late, however, to try to teach our children not only the difference between right and wrong, but also why behaving well pays positive benefits. “Character education” is a start, but it falls short of the kind of carrot-and-stick instructional approach that is needed. It is not enough to rely on clever aphorisms like: “Don’t look down on anyone unless you are trying to lift them up.” A dry set of abstract admonitions about not acting badly does not work. Instead, schools might consider instituting a case study approach, always a much livelier and more interesting learning methodology because it involves real people and fascinating stories, which in turn generate animated discussion.
 
To make such classes more palatable to students, it could be titled something like “Making Good Decisions” without detracting from the goal. There are countless examples of people who did — and did not — rise to the occasion. To cite just a few contemporary ones: Warren Buffet and Bill Gates donating tens of billions to good works; Anthony Weiner, John Ensign, Eliot Spitzer, Eric Massa and Chris Lee destroying their promising political careers; Bono’s global humanitarian efforts; and Barry Bonds' self-immolation.

Email Richard Hermann care of Messenger Post Media at kfrisch@messengerpostmedia.com.