Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthlyReflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.
It’s great sport to watch The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert eviscerate members of Congress with video clips of their latest bits of idiocy. It serves to demonstrate the truth of Mark Twain’s comment: “Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
Yet here’s a political puzzle that’s baffled me for years: The Congress, as a body of 535 or so men and women, almost always gets the lowest approval ratings of any Washington institution, lower even than the press. And some of the members, especially nowadays, are truly buffoons who, in the words of a former house speaker, never open their mouths but that they detract from the sum of human knowledge.
Nevertheless, most of the members, including the nuts, are re-elected every two or six years by constituents who then join in the chorus of derision for the congress. The simple explanation, of course, is that it’s easy to ridicule an amorphous body, but congressional politics is local and utilitarian, as the founders planned, and even the buffoons have aides who can solve a Social Security problem and Kiwanians who will support any warm body who wears a flag pin.
But I have digressed from my mission here, which is to tell you that there is something more profound at work when members of Congress, who should know better, act, speak and vote like fools. How else to explain Senator Charles Grassley, a veteran Iowa Republican who ran the committee on aging, actually saying, if not believing, that the health insurance reforms considered by the Senate Finance Committee, on which he’s the ranking member, would encourage the deaths of older insured people on Medicare?
What I have observed in 50 years of covering politics and the Congress is that members like Grassley, after many years in public life, often become removed from the realities of daily life. They’ll simply lose touch and their interests (like party loyalty and ideology) become increasingly irrelevant for the everyday lives of people they are supposed to represent.
I remember when I first realized this – without understanding it. It was during one the interviews I did when, for a time in my Houston tenure, I was assigned to cover luncheons and the like and write features about interesting visitors.
My technique was to ask my subject something out of left field. So I learned that then opera star Roberta Peters was a baseball fan and once sang the latest World Series score to her tenor. And I found that Socialist leader Norman Thomas had a great sense of humor.
The subject who confounded me a bit was one of my political heroes, Senator J. William Fulbright, the suave and liberal Arkansas Democrat, then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Instead of talking foreign policy with him, I asked him a very pedestrian question which I no longer remember. All that I recall is that the technique didn’t work; Fulbright, a former college president, did not know what I was talking about. It was simply not part of his reality.
That was understandable. Like others in his station, he did not drive his own car, go to the cleaners, buy groceries, pay for the lunch or even type his speech. Others were paid to do things like that.
I remember participating in long lunch and bull session in Des Moines in 1980, with a gang of reporters and Senator Ted Kennedy. The long-suffering and hard-working waitress was stunned when Kennedy left without paying or tipping her. The explanation: He didn’t realize he had to; besides, he never carried money because he didn’t need it. His aides and the reporters paid. And someone (not me) wrote a nasty story about how Teddy nearly stiffed the waitress.
But even the privileged and protected have the capacity to learn, perhaps from personal tragedy and human encounters. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s struggle with polio and his months with plain folk at Warm Springs were reflected in his New Deal liberalism and passion for social justice. The murders of Kennedy’s brothers which left Ted the head and caretaker of the clan, and the serious illnesses of his two sons, gave him his liberal social conscience and determination to provide for all Americans the health insurance he had.
Former Senate Republican leader Bill Frist, a heart surgeon and a bona fide conservative whose family corporation (Columbia HCA) ripped off Medicare for billions of dollars, now supports health care reform he would have opposed when he was in Congress. He had traveled the world seeing the need for health care in Africa, which he writes about in his new book, A Heart to Serve – The Passion to Bring Health, Hope and Healing. And he ridicules as nonsense the opposition statements of Grassley and company.
Frist had been freed from the narrow personal and financial interests that prevent legislators from looking around at the real world, learning new things and, God forbid, changing their views. If you watched the performance of the Senate Finance Committee, for example, you would have seen well-paid aides hovering over their senators telling them what’s going on and what positions they ought to take. (Some aides has worked for insurance and drug companies).
The Washington Post’s Manuel Roig-Franzia, who wrote October 1 of the “whispering brigade” of aides at the committee’s sessions, caught one of them speaking quietly to Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana, which is not of the real world for most of us, “mouthing lines in Baucus’ ear almost Cyrano de Bergerac-style.”
I’m told that Senator Olympia (Hamlet) Snowe, of Maine, had to be instructed from time to time on how Medicare works. She was not alone in her ignorance. She opposed any “public option” among the choices in health care, she said, although she was not clear why because most of her older constituents have Medicare, which is a public option and most of the rest of the people in Maine appear to want the same.
Democratic Senator Evan Bayh, of Indiana, and independent Joe Lieberman, threatened to block or vote against health reform with a public option and almost no one in the press, save blogger Glenn Greenwald, noted their close ties to and the money they and their spouses get from the insurance and drug industries.
Indeed, much of the press. From the beginning, has aided and abetted efforts to kill a strong, health care bill that could lead to universal insurance.
As I’ve written elsewhere, despite appeals from some of the best experts in medicine and health care, much of the main stream press ignored and helped to toss off the table of consideration, Medicare for All. Then, as Chris Weigant wrote in Huffington Post on October 27, virtually every reporter and commentator pronounced the so-called “public option” dead. And they seem to applaud the members who confirmed their assumption, but they didn’t challenge them, or suggest that maybe the public option may be a good thing.
And despite its growing popularity, the public option was dismissed as supported by “liberals.” Why? Because too much of the press no longer pursues that which is outside their own narrow and conventional interests and career ambitions. Once journalism was a calling to right wrongs; now (except for some fine blogs like this one) it’s a career without values.
That’s a far cry from the kind of aggressive, participatory journalism practiced before 24-hour cable-infotainment. My colleagues and I challenged and argued with lawmakers who seem divorced from reality. We even fed them questions to be asked of witnesses, the better to get a good story.
With the help of a few reporters, including me, Ralph Nader began the consumer movement. One of the finest investigative reporters I knew worked closely with a member of Congress to root out union corruption. My needling questions and stories helped bring a senator I covered over to oppose the Vietnam War.
Now, however, almost no one (except perhaps Rachel Maddow and a few bloggers) pokes at the hypocrisy of, say, Senator John McCain who will vote to kill the health reform although he has been on the public payroll for all his life and never had to pay a medical bill.
How about that buffoon who proposed that all members of Congress be forced to sign up for the health reform? Doesn’t he know that that’s what he and his well-paid colleagues already have in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan and for only $503 a year? But I’ll bet that many don’t pay their own bills. Does anyone call them out on their hypocrisy besides Stewart and Colbert?
I miss being in the trenches covering these lawmakers many, if not most, of whom are valiant and tireless public servants. But, like Representatives John Dingell and John Conyers, both of Michigan, the two longest-serving members of the House, the really good ones don’t often get press because they are not buffoons.
I covered them both and had my difference with Dingell over his overt legislative support for the National Rifle Association. But Dingell, whose father was a New Dealer who helped give us our modern labor laws, and Conyers, who once worked as an aide to the younger Dingell, have for years championed universal national health insurance, which most Americans say they want.
Truth be told, I think even most members of Congress, would agree. But they are dismissed by other lawmakers and the press who ignore the real world of what is needed in favor of the narrow, conventional wisdom which as usual, is not very wise.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Nancy Leitz: The Theological Discussion