At Large November 2002

No Apparent Motive

A chilling characteristic of politicians is that they're not in it for the money
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Political season is open. We arm ourselves with what sense and information we possess. We dress in the insulated underwear of liberty, don the rainproof Barbour coat of opinion, and pull on the hip boots of good citizenship. Then we go into our voting-booth camouflage blinds. If it were duck season, we'd know what to do when we got a politician in our sights ...

Stop. Call the game wardens of thought. Gun violence has cost us too many political leaders, and hardly ever the worst ones. Fishing is a gentler metaphor. All I really want to do to politicians is annoy them with op-ed dry flies and watch them bite the hook-concealing worm of media coverage. I don't even mind the catch-and-release program, as practiced on Richard Nixon, Ted Kennedy, and Bill Clinton. I just want to see politicians flop in profound discomfort while smelling fishy.

After thirty years of making fun of politicians, I have decided, contrary to all rules of good humor, that I don't like them. Not that politicians are dislikable. It is their job to be liked. They are very busy at this job and at many other jobs. A politician's day is long. He gets into the office early, reads newspaper clippings with his name highlighted, submits to a radio interview with Howard Stern, goes to a prayer breakfast and an ACLU lunch, checks opinion polls, meets with an NRA delegation, makes a friendly call to Al Sharpton, sits in the Inland Waterways Committee hearing room drawing pictures of sailboats and sea-gulls on a notepad, proposes National Dried Plum Week, votes "yea" (or is it "nay"?) on something or other (consult staff), exercises with the President, recovers from a faked charley horse after being lapped on the White House jogging track, watches the signature machine sign letters to constituents, returns a corporate campaign contribution to WorldCom, speaks at a dinner supporting campaign-finance reform, goes home, gets on the phone, and fund-raises until all hours.

Why? People usually work for money. James Traficant may have gone into politics for the gelt. But most politicians have IQs in the dull-to-normal range, higher than Traficant's. Politicians realize that a person who is as busy and likable as they are could have been making millions in telecommunications-stock fraud. Maybe politicians are motivated by power. They want to boss the show, call the shots, twist arms, and land on the rest of us like a ton of bricks. That would mean that politicians are bad. Or maybe politicians are motivated by fame. Perhaps they believe the old saw "Washington is Hollywood for the ugly." They want to be fabulous, in the limelight at all times, the only noodle in the soup, and box-office dynamite. That would mean that politicians are mentally ill.

But politics is hedged about with competing interests and advocacies, compromises and conciliations, and all sorts of checks and balances (albeit a lot of the checks have had to be sent back to donors lately). The average practical politician has less power than a high school senior-class president and cannot so much as unilaterally decree that the annual House-Senate sock-hop theme will be "Hula Luau." As for fame, the natural buffoonishness of being President catches the American eye, as does the flamboyancy of an occasional loon's run for prominent office. But in general Americans regard the politician as a type of celebrity falling somewhere between NPR commentator and soap-opera supporting actress. The "undisclosed location" that Dick Cheney occupied for much of the past year may have been, for all that anyone noticed, in a guest box on Hollywood Squares.

What is obnoxious about the motives of politicians—whatever those motives may be—is that politicians must announce their motives as visionary and grand. Try this with the ordinary activities of your day: "My dear wife and beloved children, I say to you this—I will mow the lawn. Lawns are a symbol of America's spacious freedoms and green prosperity. Such noble tokens of well-being and independence must not go untended, lest we show the world that liberty is mere license and see the very ground upon which we stand, as Americans, grow tangled with the weeds of irresponsibility and be fruitful only in the tares of greed. I will give the grass clippings to the poor."

Politicians are not, as a class, outstandingly evil or insane. For the most part they're just ridiculous people. One actually suspects them of liking politics. In Webster's Third New International Dictionary, "politics" is defined as, among other things, "the art of adjusting and ordering relationships between individuals and groups in a political community." Even someone in a very small political community (my house) who holds an office that is largely ceremonial (dad) knows what a Sisyphean task it is to be adjusting and ordering relationships between individuals (the kids and the dog) and groups (the whole family packed in the car) for nothing more than a day at the beach. A person who undertakes more of this, on a larger scale, involving people with whom he is not linked by ties of kinship and to whom he has no ability to give "time-outs," is a ridiculous person indeed.

No doubt the ridiculous politicians are right to like politics. They have found careers in which success can be achieved by being ridiculous. Imagine Jimmy Carter or George W. Bush rising to the top of any other profession. Although Al Gore's combination of patronizing tone, know-it-all attitude, and magnificent grasp of the obvious would have made him a treasure at The New York Times. And Bill Clinton surely could make a go of various Arkansas land-development and banking swindles (and may have done so). Some politicians do exhibit job skills. Harry Truman ran a haberdashery. George H. W. Bush looked for oil. Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson taught school. Ronald Reagan was a movie actor. But it was a relief to investors, students, and film critics when these politicians finally discovered politics.

It is no bad thing that our politicians are fools. We mortals all famously are. And the theory of democracy is that we can rule ourselves. If exceptionally wise and able men were required to run our democratic system, we'd have a lot of explaining to do to the other fools around the world, from Zimbabwe to North Korea, upon whom we are always urging democratic institutions. Anyway, the history of kingdoms, oligarchies, and dictatorships indicates that ordinary fools do a pretty good job in politics, comparatively.

And it is also no bad thing that the folly of politics itself exists. If the wiles of political maneuver weren't effective, then "adjusting and ordering relationships between individuals and groups" would have to be accomplished by force or technical expertise. Use of force would be hard on one who is short, middle-aged, flabby, and (duck season, in fact, opened on October 2) a bad shot. Use of expertise would be hard on everybody. In The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek pointed out that there could be no worse nightmare than a society in which each form of endeavor was controlled by the acknowledged expert in that field. Tiger Woods is the world's greatest sportsman. But, useful as the five iron is on the golf course, it is a hazard in a hockey game or a synchronized-swimming competition. Imagine: As the editor of Vogue, Anna Wintour chooses the sleek little off-the-shoulder number worn by Colin Powell at state dinners. Our split-levels and center-hall Colonials are sheathed in wild swoops of titanium by Frank Gehry. J. K. Rowling introduces a "magic hat" into the plot of Jane Austen's Emma. Jennifer Aniston plays Lady Macbeth, Hedda Gabler, and Clytemnestra, and Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner. Andrew Lloyd Webber is in charge of the Bayreuth Festival. And we all go to bed with Hugh Hefner. There's no quality control in politics, thank heaven.

On the other hand, the hell of it is, there's no quality control in politics. Politics is a tissue of fibs and fantasies. Taxes cannot be lowered without hurting social services. Taxes cannot be raised without damaging the economy. A middle way must be found. Be assured that the way is twisted, dark, and deep in filthy muck. Spending is heaped on corrupt and egregious items (the recent agriculture bill, for instance) while any number of worthy objects are left unfunded (poor people, for example). Most of the problems that politicians face, such as high taxes and inadequate social services, are problems that politicians made—by raising taxes or cutting social services. Thus politicians spend much of their time as skunks going around with aerosol cans of room freshener.

Consider what truth would sound like on the stump, even the least bit of truth: "No, I can't fix public education. When I came home butt-ignorant with lousy grades, my parents didn't blame property-tax inequities, lack of a voucher system, teachers' unions, or the absence of computer equipment in the classroom. Maybe the problem is your unruly and disagreeable children—half of whom, incidentally, are below the median in intelligence. And so, for that matter, am I."

In looking for a way to think about politics, analogies to hunting and fishing won't do. We are not in pursuit of the biggest, fattest politician, or (the Clinton Administration to the contrary) the one with the largest rack of horns. Nor is politics a business, an industry, or any other form of creative activity. Politics is a natural function of the body politic. The body politic produces noisome and unseemly substances, among which are politicians. This is healthy. Much better that politicians be deposited in Washington, D.C., than that they be endured in the home or suffered in the workplace.

Give people privacy when they are practicing politics. And try not to step in the results.

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