[This Commentary originally appeared in the June 15, 1989 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]
A few weeks ago many of you read about Pete Rose and Jim Wright on this very same page. Well, folks, I admit to you now, the closest I ever got to correctly predicting the future was when I played the role of the Soothsayer in our eight-grade production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. (Remember him? He only had two lines, both identical: “Caesar, beware the Ides of March!”)
OK, so I was wrong about Wright (the jury’s still out on Rose). Boy, was I wrong! I was about as wrong as you can be. I mean, when the dominoes fell, they certainly fell. Not only did the Speaker of the House resign, but so did his protégé Tony Coelho, the Chief Whip. Wow. It’s sort of impressive (and a little scary) when you think about it.
It’s now pretty clear we may be in the midst of the decennial self-cleansing among our Washington politicians. This means a lot of fat cats running low and running scared. It also means not a whole lot will get done in this Congress. Too bad. A lot needs getting done.
The more high-fluent media might pick a time like this to rattle our already rattled government officials. Luckily, we can find no pretensions of fourth estate sophistication in our file cabinets, so there will be no attempt to finger “the evil guilty party” behind our McCarthy-esque Congress.
Yes, Capitol Hill teems with chaos, but this merely represents par for the course. Usually, boring partisan rhetoric covers the confusion and we all go on our merry way as though things run smoothly. Every once and awhile, though, certain events cause the Congressional slip to show. The electorate thereupon gets down on the politicians.
During these times of public pandemonium, a great opportunity exists for the more altruistic Congressman – especially those whose party seems to be taking the brunt of the ridicule. For example, Howard Baker’s career took off in part because of his role in the Watergate hearings. Television viewers saw him as a man who put principles ahead of party loyalty. Back then, a Democrat, acting in like fashion could not have been construed as such.
Similarly today, the advantage belongs to the Democrat willing to confront his leadership, not the Republican who takes on the opposition. One can reasonably conclude the people perceive a cancerous growth of misplaced ethics among the leadership of the majority (at least). That leadership is more aptly termed the party machine. The time is ripe, then, for two types of brave, new actions.
The first applies only to Democrats. Democrats fill the Congress. There are so many of them, the machine cannot fully embrace them all. Some, particularly the younger (in terms of experience) members, may dwell totally outside the party apparatus. These folks have the easiest opportunity (and the most to gain) by seizing the day. Naturally, we must assume those not involved in the party machinery have remained relatively untarnished.
Of course, some one or two term congressmen belong to the machine. They, like their older peers, hover too close to the problem to credibly speak up against it (that is, without being viewed as a turncoat or political opportunistic). You see, only those whose principles (either directly or indirectly) kept them out of the leadership clique can honestly contradict the current authority.
Publicly standing up against the machine does two things. Foremost, it separates the young statesman from his tainted elders. The electorate will therefore see this individual as one whose consistently practiced code of conduct has more import than his party ties. Secondly, as the act entails sacrificing at least some of those party ties, people will see the member as one gallant enough to dare his “peer’s” disdain. America applauds the maverick.
As for the other action, any member of Congress can perform it. It involves stepping aside from the fray and pushing a sound (not necessarily heroic) legislative agenda. This person need not have to outline a way to end world hunger, (though it might be a nice place to start). Rather, he merely needs to faithfully and tirelessly advocate a position of some substance and import. It would take an uncommon man to dissuade the powers that be from engaging in Congressional fratricide, and the nation will recognize this.
Unfortunately, we already see the ramifications of undisciplined inertia. A Republican staffer, in a moment of extremely poor judgment, issued an antagonizing memo regarding Tom Foley, the new Speaker of the House. An unconstructive and foolish move, the memo did nothing more than cause a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the Democrats, embarrassing the Republicans and leading to the staffer’s resignation.
One the other side of the aisle, in the “eye-for-an-eye” spirit, certain Democrats seem intent on bringing about the demise of Newt Gingrich, who many blame for exposing Jim Wright’s ethical indiscretions. Some have even tried to cover up this clear act of mindless revenge with the soothing stipulation that the congressman from Georgia will be treated fairly.
Indeed, one congressman said, “We will treat him fairly, but we will treat him.” What does that imply? It suggests the point is the act itself, not the truth of the allegations. It also presents a set of priorities which play less in tune with the American agenda and cater more to petty partisans.
I guess what I’m saying is, again harking back to the bard, What’s done ‘tis done and can’t be undone. Jim Wright and Tony Coelho now belong to history. They, like John Tower, fell, ill-fated victims of both the prevailing political climate and their own woeful deeds. I offer no excuse for either them or others who may blatantly take advantage of the public trust, but I can’t help think, if the political environment had been different, they might all still remain in their Washington jobs. (Which leads to that awful generic conclusion: The problem is with the system, not the people in it.)
So, unless someone has a proposal to refine the rules of governing ethics (i.e., make them less subjective), then let’s not use the issue as a way of attacking the other party or getting even. A good Republican must now call to an end of the witch hunting, concede some of their own may have crossed that shadowy line (implying they must atone for their own deeds) and start concentrating on real issues. Likewise, a good Democrat must have the self-control to avoid wanting to “treat” some Republican, admit their previous leadership might not have had the proper values and vow to personally lead their party along a cleaner path.
Last Week #12: Ties, Spots and Murphy’s Law (originally published June 8, 1989)
Next Week #14: Twentieth Century Lorelei (originally published June 22, 1989)
[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]