Back in college, one of my professors gave me an idea I’ve never forgotten. He spoke of myths that shape and inspire our national consciousness, and how they always relate to a past that is not only gone but may not even have happened. It must have been back in the 70’s, because he referenced the gun-in-the-rack, survivalist twist on the rugged individualism that Bonanza brought into our living rooms once a week.
I’ve been thinking of myths of politics lately for one simple reason. In following the current debate in Washington on the debt ceiling, I’ve come to a conclusion I have never reached before, through good times or bad – until now. Quite simply, I think we are fucked.
Perhaps not over this particular crisis, for I don’t think any politician who wants to get re-elected – all of them, in other words – wants to get stuck with the blame for a national default. But I think this “debate” reveals how utterly disfunctional our system has become. Handwringing over the gummint has probably always been a national pastime – I finally believe it is justified. Still, I prefer laughter and even creative thinking to handwringing, so I have been mulling over what myths I believed about about our leaders in the past, and what might be a better fit now.
Back in the days when my favorite TV show was “Leave it to Beaver,” I watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with my parents: a rugged individualist from Montana takes on the system, and proves that right and integrity still can prevail.
Soon after I saw Mr. Smith, for a few brief years, we had Kennedy’s Camelot: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Fast forward six years and there was Kent State and with Crosby, Stills, and Nash singing, “Soldiers are gunning us down.” It’s been a roller coaster ride since then with ups and downs, times of malaise and times of letting the good times roll, but all along, at least for me, there was the faith that we can make things better. Our system may be flawed but it works. There was always someone to believe in, someone like Senator Robert Byrd, a real-life Jimmie Stewart who carried a copy of the Constitution in his pocket.
Senator Byrd is gone now, and so is my faith that we can right ourselves in time to avoid driving off a cliff. What kind of myth fits that? I’ve been mulling it over for several weeks, and it came to me yesterday, thanks to Turner Classic Movies. They aired my favorite Marx Brothers film, Horse Feathers, and there it was: my latest take on the current state of our government:
Do you think there’s a kinder way to depict our current crop of elected “servants?” If so, please let me know!
I have never been as disgusted with politics as I am today. If I hear one more Bozo from either side talk about his or her life of public service I will scream. New Hampshire has it right. Legislators in that state are paid $200 for a two year term with no per diem. They have 424 members total in the two houses for 1.3 million residents, approximately one representative for every 3100 people. They know their constituents. They show up, do their work, and go home. They aren’t there for the salaries, perks, and life-long benefits. The size and scope of our federal government is ridiculous and becoming more so every day. I love the Marx Brothers clip. That is exactly what’s going on in Washington and the country continues to suffer because of it. Yes, Morgan, you got it right. We are fucked. What a mess we are leaving for our children and grandchildren.
Wow, I did not know those details on New Hampshire. I heard an interesting take on the situation in Washington recently in a radio interview with a retired long term senator – it might have been Tip O’Neal – someone like that with a recognizable name.
He brought up a very human element. He said that 2 and 3 decades ago, when travel was more difficult, and before anyone had blackberries, most of the legislators had homes in Washington and knew each other outside of work. He pointed out that even if you disagreed with someone’s politics, it was much harder to demonize them and refuse to talk if your families bumped into each other on parent-teacher night at school.
I remember reading that while the Continental Congress was meeting in Philadelphia, debating the Declaration of Independence, congressional aides roamed up and down the aisles, making sure that the representatives’ beer mugs were full. I’m not sure people who long for “the good old days” always know what they are asking for!
On the other hand, maybe Happy Hour in congress isn’t such bad idea. Could our leaders get into more mischief than they currently manage sober?