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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org