At Large November 2002

No Apparent Motive

A chilling characteristic of politicians is that they're not in it for the money

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.

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