Thus Republican Bruce Rauner, with no experience in politics and no qualifications beyond an excess of self-regard and the ability to buy expensive TV time claiming he would make a fine governor, issues the alarming claim that people who have experience with government should be banned by law from participating in it. He snaps the whip, and urges the feeble idea of term limits, like an exhausted circus pony, out into the hissing limelight for one more prance around the miserable ring.
Term limits imply that, unlike every other career—where years of work makes a professional better able to meet challenges -- politics is so uniquely corrupting that anyone venal enough to want to serve in office must be given the heave ho, by legislation, after a certain brief span of time. Rauner thinks eight years is as much as any human being can be trusted to serve as governor.
This was a topic I addressed — good God! — 17 years ago, on Feb. 16, 1997. I don't know if this is any worse than what I would write now, it's certainly no better, and I hope doesn't suggest I should have been compelled to resign. No one should. The American way is that we work hard, rise or fall on our merits, and stay there for the same reasons, not be declared rotten by the whim of people who don't know what they're talking about and given the gate. The Clinton reference is a reminder that we libs were never the drooling partisans that the Right Wing fanatics would paint us to be.
Whenever I lend a book to someone, I make certain they never forget about it. Feigning curiosity, I ask for frequent updates -- "How's that book going? Enjoying that book?" The goal, of course, is to get the volume back someday.
|The great H.L. Mencken|
I do this with the same care that a pickpocket extends toward his own wallet. Because other people's books have a habit of straying into my library and never straying out again.
Thus I was astounded to find myself, unprompted, actually preparing to return a book. And not just any book, but H.L. Mencken's A Carnival of Buncombe. An out-of-print gem lent to me a year or so ago by my friend Cate, blinded by kindness.
Faced with the daunting prospect of losing such a treasure, I began browsing over the master's ruminations from long-lost days.
The sentences sizzled and popped, as always, and there were flashes of recognition so personal that it was disconcerting. Almost like picking up a 1921 yearbook at a flea market, flipping it open, and seeing your own senior photograph, smiling in sepia from among the rows of high collars and pomaded hair.
"I believe that all government is evil, and that trying to improve it is largely a waste of time," Mencken writes, in a 1924 essay.
Here is a credo if ever there was one -- I might have it needlepointed and framed and hung over my bathroom mirror, so I can recite it each morning, with my hand over my heart.
That single sentence explains why there isn't a lot of intense debate about the nation's politics in this column. Any given senator can hardly affect policy, despite the fact that he or she is working like a ferret 20 hours a day trying to do so. What hope have I?
Anyway, politics at every level is hypocrisy in action. I voted for Bill Clinton while sincerely believing he is the worst president to hold office since his predecessor, with a record of bumbling and insincerity that will go unmatched in history until whoever succeeds him is sworn in.
This does not mean, however, that I would keep an important observation to myself just out of the belief that sharing it won't make a lick of difference.
The notion of congressional term limits is heating up. Last week, the House voted them down, again, but more than 70 percent of Americans say they are in favor of them and the idea isn't going away. Even normally sensible observers such as George Will sing their praises. In Newsweek, he writes, "Term limits can produce deliberative bodies disposed to think of the next generation rather than the next election."
In Utopia, maybe. Term limits are a stupid idea, holding the peril of all sorts of horrible, unexpected consequences. I knew this in that half-formed, unspoken way that most people know things. Not in a way I could articulate.
As luck would have it, just as I was mulling how to express the problem with term limits, the answer -- eloquent and convincing -- popped out of a most unexpected place . . .
First, I must acknowledge that the following confession will tar me as a freakish anomaly, as out of step with the times as if I said I dipped candles or took snuff. But the future of the Republic is at stake, and I can't let embarrassment hold me back.
Quizzed as to why, Tiberius replied that, first, it was a bother to keep dismissing and replacing people, and besides, "it was a law of nature that governors are prone to engage in extortion."
Given that law, Tiberius said, governors with permanent positions "would be gorged with their robberies and would by the very bulk of them be more sluggish in pursuit of further gain."
Constantly cycling in new governors, on the other hand, would only make them grab for all they could during their brief reign. As Tiberius so artfully put it, "Their natural appetite for plunder would be reinforced by their expectation of being speedily deprived of that pleasure."
Wiser, truer words -- or a more ringing indictment against term limits -- I cannot imagine. The idea intended to reduce crookedness would only accelerate it. But that's the risk with gimmicky ideas. Returning to Mencken: "The older I grow the less I esteem mere ideas. In politics, particularly, they are transient and unimportant."
What politicians need instead of faddish ideas, Mencken concludes, is "character." If they had character, we wouldn't need a constitutional amendment to periodically expel them from the government.
We can always vote them out of office -- an exercise that even Mencken recognized carries some satisfaction, if scant practical result:
"Turning out such gross incompetents, to be sure, does very little practical good, for they are commonly followed by successors who are almost as bad, but it at least gives the voters a chance to register their disgust, and so it keeps them reasonably contented, and turned their thoughts away from the barricade and the bomb."