THE BAD, THE GOOD, THE INDIFFERENT

Listening to Washington DC's mayor Marion Barry discuss his city's problems on Meet the Press, I was flooded with mixed feelings. In the past year, he's suffered from prostate cancer, alcoholism, and has been trying to stay clean from a former cocaine habit. It is impossible not to feel a twinge of sympathy for him. And perhaps like any politician faced with many difficult problems and a fixed budget, his evasions and self-serving rationalizations about what he and his administration have done to improve living conditions in Washington are to be expected. Nevertheless, they are hard to swallow.

As I watched the program, the thought came to me that Barry was an excellent example of a concept that pervades America today: improve our infrastructure, expand our social services, pay our medical bills, guarantee our jobs, and then send the bill somewhere else.

I remembered a politician who set himself apart from this creed by promoting personal and generational responsibility, by saying it was wrong for us to live well by imposing debt on our unborn children, that we had to discontinue annual deficits, and by saying business, not government, was the only source of jobs. To make it even more clear he was really serious, he proposed a fifty cent a gallon tax on gasoline. Agree with him or not, his sincerity, conviction, and decency showed through. His name was Paul Tsongas, and he is dead. In light of what I've just written, perhaps the most surprising thing about him was that he was a Democrat.

What was unsurprising about Tsongas is that he was never nominated by the Democratic party to run for president. He was candid, had a wonderful, dry sense of humor, and gave it a good run, but he was never taken seriously by political pundits or senior members of the Democratic National Committee. Those wise and unemotional observers of the human comedy abide by one unwritten rule: people who play it straight and tell the electorate our free lunch is over, people who insist we must begin paying the freight C.O.D., and people who believe generational irresponsibility is inexcuseable and wrong, suffer a common fate. They fail to be nominated or, when nominated, are defeated in elections. If nothing else, politicians are practical people, and give the voters what they want.

Consequently, Marion Barry merely typifies the kind of man who enjoys a built-in voter bias that assists him in winning elections. He is not that unusual, though his candidacy and reelection after serving time for using coke could be considered startling. The politics of race is difficult to handicap, and as a former mayor who also is black, perhaps Barry tapped a rebellious streak or was able to demonstrate the practical job experience Washington's voters were looking for.

In any event, Barry won, and he is now seeking outside funding to remedy a multiplicity of city woes. As the capital of our nation, Americans would like Washington to represent a showcase for domestic and foreign visitors. Barry is playing on that sentiment to receive external tax dollars to pay for repairs and improvements, and Congress will very likely support him with some.

My point, if one can be identified from this melange of concepts, is what is it going to take to wean America's voters from the political trough? Men like Tsongas who care about the country are scarce, and we reject them out of hand. Their message is austere and unpopular, and our habits of ingrained selfishness and instant self-gratification prevent us from rectifying past mistakes. Will the ghost of Paul Tsongas have to walk behind the podium at the annual State of the Union Address, like that of Banquo in Macbeth, before we finally understand a mature, enduring democracy must pay as it goes?


Sam Orr sorr@metrolink.net
World Traveler
and Philanthrope
(Location Unknown)