TCS Daily

American Politics: The Greatest Show on Earth

By Robert McHenry - July 31, 2006 12:00 AM

Most days I don't think about it, any more than you do, but there are times when I just love being an American citizen. It's about the best job a guy (or gal) could have. It pays well, in the general sense of standard of living, and it doesn't require much of me; but most of all it's simply the greatest show on Earth.

I live in the California 50th Congressional district. Recently our delegate to the House of Representatives traded that job for a secure long-term position in an alternative federal institution, and we citizens were asked to select a new one. During the campaign I met one of the candidates -- the loser, as it turned out -- and chatted with her amiably on the platform one morning while waiting for my commuter train. She did not strike me as Congressional material, really, meaning that she did not seem to me to have what it takes to belong to what Mark Twain called our only "distinctly native American criminal class." Nonetheless I voted for her, chiefly to (as we say nowadays) "send a message to Washington." Inasmuch as she lost, let me take this opportunity to resend my message via this more direct medium: "Bite me."

Today I received in the mail a flyer from the winner, "prepared, published and mailed at taxpayer expense," as it confesses in small type on the last page. Our new representative promises on page one to "fight for" three things. I'll tell you what they are in a moment, but first I want to wonder about how he proposes to "fight for" them. Will it be Marquis of Queensberry rules? Or will there be weapons? Is it to the death, or do they just score points? May I watch? What if (we should be so lucky) he and whoever is on the other side take each other out? Or could it be that "fight for" is, as a phrase, just a mite self-dramatizing?

Now the three things. 1. "Stopping Illegal Immigration." This is a little puzzling. My understanding is that he will be doing his "work" in Washington, D.C., which is no small distance east of here, while the illegal immigration occurs chiefly on the Mexican border, which begins due south of me. Perhaps he weekends in the National Guard? If he does, does his staff count as a force multiplier? Then wouldn't it make sense to send a Border Patrolman to keep his seat in Washington warm? Just in case there were a vote on something truly important, like the flag amendment.

2. "Protecting the Mt. Soledad Veterans War Memorial." This is a strictly local issue, whose ultimate inconsequentiality is exceeded in degree only by the passions of those few on either side who actually "fight for" it (i.e., hire lawyers). Suffice it to say that it involves saving, not a war memorial per se, but a large Christian cross associated with it on public ground.

3. "Improving Our Quality of Life." My quality of life depends a good deal on the weather, which has been far too humid for my taste just lately; on my wife's mood, which in turn depends to a significant extent on whether people are buying her craft creations; and on whether I can find a topic upon which to exert my (you should pardon the presumption) creative energies. I will be only too grateful if my new representative can do anything about these, but I am reminded of what the teacher always said: "If I make an exception for you, then I'll have to make one for everybody." I always hated that argument; "everybody" hadn't had the gumption to ask.

Anyway, these are his three priorities. Raise your hand if you can't think of a single problem facing the nation that outweighs at least one of these. If you raised your hand, now go sit in the corner.

On the last page of the flyer he invites me to tear off a sort of postcard and, before mailing it back to him, to indicate on it my "top concerns." Nine options are offered, beginning with "Gas Prices" and continuing with such matters as "Health Care," "Social Security," "Education," and, yes, "Protecting Mt. Soledad." Mind you, each of these is presented as a check-box item. If I'm concerned with one of these -- no, if one of these is among my "top concerns" -- then I can so indicate. I'm not asked to indicate what exactly is my view on any of these issues, nor is there space to do so. So whether I think that Social Security payments should be trebled next year, when I become eligible, or that the system should be privatized, or that it should be abolished and the "trust fund" distributed to the Fortune 500 companies in gratitude for their services to congressional incumbents, I may only offer a check mark. OK, done: I have an opinion, whatever it may be.

There also lacks a blank space where I might indicate that my actual "top concern" is, oh, say, the simple integrity of elected officials. One of my new representative's first votes after his arrival in Washington was in support of a wad of earmarks. Perhaps he ought to have included among his "top concern" options something about Maximizing Pork-Barrel Returns to our District by Helping Other Pols Maximize Theirs, but then perhaps no one among his new young staffers could think quite how to phrase it delicately. Doubtless they will learn, provided he is reelected in November, which only a blizzard on election day could prevent.

And guess what? Sending back that postcard with information vital to the conduct of our nation's business will only cost me a stamp. Hey, wait a minute Mr. Postman!

The author is a TCS Daily Contributing Editor. He is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, and author of How to Know (, 2004).



Petty sharpshooting
"Petty sharpshooting" is an appropriate way to characterize the McHenry 7/31/06 piece

Excellent one point though.
Being an Aussie is the best job for the same reasons you had but for one fact. People tend not to hate us even though we think along the same lines in most things. Maybe it's because their not scared of us, any way we get the goods without the grief.

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