Back to Basics

Easy-to-understand measures that could bring palpable improvement to public life

"A REFORMER," New York City's corrupt mayor Jimmy Walker once observed, "is a guy who rides through a sewer in a glass-bottomed boat." Americans these days understandably regard politics and politicians with dismay, even contempt, but the counterweight on the scales of public opinion is a well-earned suspicion of reformers and reform. Poets and philosophers down the years have issued sober warnings on the subject. Coleridge's observation is typical: "Every reform, however necessary, will by weak minds be carried to an excess, that itself will need reforming."

A realist could hardly disagree. And yet it must also be admitted that one of the chief drawbacks of present-day efforts at reform has simply been their complexity. In ancient times what we now might think of as "regulatory oversight" tended to be expressed with peremptory concision: "Tell the Israelites: anyone, whether an Israelite or an alien residing in Israel, who gives any of his offspring to Molech, shall be put to death." Today, to cite but one example, the full text of the laws and regulations covering the conduct of federal election campaigns -- reforms dating back to the 1970s, and widely known to be inadequate -- fills a dozen official volumes.
Calls for political reform are once more in the air. In response, we might experiment with simplicity. Consider the following:

The No-Fly Zone. Modern Presidents almost never travel long distances in America by surface transportation, preferring the efficiency and glamour of Air Force One. However, on the rare occasions when they do undertake journeys by train or bus, the effect along the route is one of authentic popular expectation. Knots of ordinary people sit fanning themselves in lawn chairs, the paint still sticky on their handmade signs. This is how it always used to be: see the accounts in books like Washington's Southern Tour, 1791 and North for Union: John Appleton's Journal of a Tour to New England Made by President Polk in June and July 1847. Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled some 544,000 miles by rail during his twelve years in office, stopping at Nowheresvilles along the way and maintaining a leisurely daytime touring speed of no more than thirty-five miles an hour. A modern President may cover that distance by plane in a couple of years, encountering planted crowds at airports and moneyed ones in hotel ballrooms, and seeing essentially nothing.

So why not declare the continental United States to be a no-fly zone for the President? Indeed, a prohibition on domestic air travel ought to cover aspirants to the presidency as well. Establishing a no-fly zone would restore some of the populist aura of a medieval ruler's progress through the realm -- in this case, a realm whose terrestrial vastness and loneliness are essential elements of its character.

The Stamp Act. Concerned citizens wring their hands over our venal system of campaign financing, and over our apparent inability to implement reforms that don't contain fresh loopholes. What if we stopped worrying about the size of campaign war chests and instead started stipulating how the money had to be spent? Imagine, for instance, that candidates could raise as much money as they wished, from whomever they pleased, through whatever methods they might devise -- but were allowed by law to communicate with voters only by means of words written on paper and carried through the mails.

In 1995-1996 candidates for national office spent hundreds of millions of dollars to buy radio and television time for advertising. Directing that sum away from the airwaves and into the printed word would have far-reaching and beneficent consequences. For one thing, the U.S. Postal Service would be bound to improve. More important, so would the quality of public discourse: committing thoughts to writing almost inevitably has an uplifting effect on communication. Moreover, illiteracy would gradually disappear, as political leaders across the nation, competing for literate voters, began spending huge sums on "party-building activities" -- like running good schools. Even Republicans might perceive the wisdom of teaching the native-born children of illegal aliens how to read.

The Thingvellir Protocol. In a year or two Iceland will celebrate the millennium of its conversion to Christianity, and we will therefore soon be hearing a great deal, or at least a certain amount, about Iceland's contributions to Western civilization. Iceland's parliament, the Althing, came into existence more than a thousand years ago, and is widely acknowledged to be Europe's oldest legislative body. The Althing was ahead of its time in one other important respect: it was empowered to keep no more laws on the books than the presiding speaker could commit to memory. The rule was enforced every year by means of a public recitation by the speaker upon the Law Rock, a lava promontory overlooking the plains of Thingvellir.

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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