Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Or would they just steal faster?

     An amateur is prone to oblivious mistakes. Chief among them is laboring under the illusion that the skill yet to be mastered is easy. Or, if not easy, then something that he, the neophyte, has an inborn, nay, God-given ability to achieve without the usual investment of hard work, time and talent. 
     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.
   I was reading Antiquities by the ancient Roman historian and traitor Josephus. (We don't have cable; I have to spend my time doing something). He was going on about Tiberius' policy toward colonial governors (you have to wade through a lot of tedium to get to the good stuff) when he pointed out that, unlike other emperors, Tiberius never replaced the governors of Rome's colonies "unless they died at their posts."
     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."


  1. Neil,

    The primary advantage of term limits is that it prevents the creation of a "political class" in which a select and limited group holds positions of power. A political class has little in common with the rest of us and puts their interests above all else.

    1. In theory, David. Term limits do not seem to have impeded Putin's hold on power.

    2. Even term limits would not stop a political dynasty provided with candidates driven by nepotism and hand-picked successors. You'd have politicians constantly grooming their offspring and networking their in-laws. Exactly how it works in Illinois today. Hey, maybe you could expand term limits to extend to exclusion of relatives. Have all prospective candidates take a DNA test...

    3. Preventing the creation of a "political class" via term limits leaves the field to independently wealthy egotists such as Rauner and Oberweis who don't have to worry about preserving their political jobs. You wanna talk about a political class that "has little in common with the rest of us and puts their interests above all else", they're it. Term limits are the delivery system for plutocracy.


    4. As I was reading, the first thing that occurred to me was Tony's point about political dynasties. Our country is already creeping toward a nepotistic oligarchy (Bushes and Clintons in 7 of the last 10 presidential elections--plus Hillary in 2008!) Term limits would exhaust even our seemingly endless supply of Kennedy's.

    5. I happened to read this article on the same day I read John McCain's speech to the AIPAC about Russia. For all the modern geopolitical complexities it acknowledged, the speech he gave about "strength" vs. "weakness" could have been given during the Reagan administration. McCain is one of the 15 senators aged 60-80 whose tenure exceeds 20 years. Politics is not, and should not, be the exclusive province of the young but introducing term limits might weed out some career politicians whose ideas on domestic and foreign policy haven't changed since the Cold War.

  2. What then to do about the Madigan's of the world, the continual gerrymandering of districts and fixed primaries that keep them in power? That power than begets putting their children in power, and God save us maybe grandchildren. The royal families of Chicago, Madigan, Daley, Burke, Stroger, Jackson, are the reason we are on a downward spiral.

  3. I assume it is the same with Illinois state politics, but my twenty years working in a fairly controversial Federal program convinced me that term limits for congressmen would simply shore up the already great power of the army of professional staffers. These are the people who stay around long enough to really become both technical and legislative experts. They are the people who do most of the draftting of legislation, and when their party goes out of power they continue doing much the same thing as lobbyists. A newly elected congressman is a babe in their arms.

    Re your personal decision to avoid devoting a great deal of column space to politics, Dr. Johnson put the matter nicely.

    "How small, of all that human hearts endure,
    That part which laws, or Kings can cause or cure."

  4. Term limits don't work so well in the instance that a governor/senator/congresswoman/congressman is doing an excellent job. We'd be punishing ourselves because we think that we simply have no power to vote out bad incumbents.

    1. Repeat--Madigan...we have no power.

  5. Here's my angle: Mencken AND Josephus? THIS is what I'm talkin' about. Nobody else does this, and it needs to be done, people.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.