ACORN's leaders must have missed Liberal Advocacy 101, which teaches the Ralph Nader lesson: To point a finger at powerful interests one needs clean hands.
In 1965 General Motors wanted to debilitate Nader, then a young public interest lawyer making hay about the carmaker's unsafe vehicles. It hired private investigator Vincent Gillen to look into Nader's sex life, potential drug use and his political affiliations - anything to, as Gillen said, "shut him up." But Nader was a man with no lurid secrets, he didn't even succumb when women were hired to proposition him for blackmail purposes; and when the scheme was exposed it was GM that had to clean up its act.
At the scandal's height, Nader testified before a Senate committee about the trap set for him. He said "one has to have an ascetic existence and steely determination in order to speak truthfully, candidly and critically of American industry." In other words, be a saint or the powerful will get you.
ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, needs to take this to heart. It's going to take a ton of sanitizer to clean up the mess on its hands, but it can be done.
ACORN has been in existence since the 1970s, organizing low-income communities into activist enclaves and turning the nation's poor into engaged voters. But its success in bringing minority voters to the polls has also earned it powerful enemies, including the entirety of the Fox News bullpen and the Republican Party.
Now, by its own misdeeds, the organization is in trouble in a way that has shattered the trust of supporters. No one can watch the infamous videos that have gone viral on the Web without feeling shame for ACORN and wondering about the group's judgment.
ACORN workers in offices in Brooklyn, Baltimore and Washington are caught on hidden camera advising filmmakers posing as a prostitute and pimp how to obtain a loan to run a brothel. ACORN housing and tax advisers readily volunteer information to conservative activists James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, the supposed sex traffickers, on the best way to lie to the IRS and hide a prostitution ring of underage, illegal immigrant girls.
The videos come on the heels of criminal warrants against 11 part-time ACORN workers hired to register voters in Homestead. They allegedly forged hundreds of registrations using fake names and addresses.
This pile of bad acts has gotten too big. Officialdom is jumping ship, starting with an overwhelming vote Monday in the Senate to hold back federal housing money from ACORN, and calls for government probes. The group may soon find it hard to see its breath on a mirror.
Not helping things was ACORN's initial insipid response. Bertha Lewis, ACORN's chief executive, threatened Fox News with lawsuits, claiming the videos were doctored. ACORN defended itself by saying that other offices approached by O'Keefe and Giles didn't bite. But the group isn't absolved because workers in other offices acted ethically. That's like defending the integrity of a police department because only a small percentage of its cops take bribes.
Fair or not, the videos say to me - someone who defended ACORN in the last election against Republican attacks over its voter registration practices - that the group will help anyone cheat on taxes who pays a fee and signs up as an ACORN member.
Since its initial missteps at the scandal's eruption, ACORN has come to understand that it must address its lack of controls and training and will launch an independent internal investigation. The organization knows that without a clean sweep and a new professionalism, the moral authority the group relies upon to push its progressive agenda will dissipate like steam on a hunk of hot humble pie.
Among ACORN's good works have been its national campaign to raise minimum wages, efforts to protect homeowners from foreclosure and a campaign to get America's workers guaranteed sick days. But do-gooders who rankle corporate interests or an established political order must be beyond reproach. Their personal reputation and causes are inextricably linked. Nader only succeeded in promoting car safety because there was nothing salacious about him to find. ACORN must make itself just as pristine.