Government: some lessons learned
Columnist, George Will, tells fellow scribblers to use every third or fourth column to share something personal with their readers. Anyway, that is my story and I’m sticking with it as an excuse to write a brief political memoir that began when I was a twelve-year-old Page in a state House of Representatives. In fact, I served enough terms to end up as Chief Page of the State Senate.
From those very early and highly impressionable years as a go-fer for elected officials, I learned, retrospectively, four important lessons: Literacy is essential to successful democracy. Those who report the news bear an enormous responsibility. One-party rule corrupts. Divided government defeats accountability.
Literacy. In the House, we had six Representatives from an area called Little Dixie who couldn’t read a lick. As we entered the House chamber each morning prior to the session, the illiterate six would find a Page, call him over and say something like this: “Sonny, I must have left my glasses at the hotel. Would you mind reading me the headlines?” So, at age twelve, I found myself having to read newspapers to people empowered to make the laws that would govern the conduct of others.
Media responsibility. Their inability to read English meant that the constituents of those elected officials were, essentially, without representation. The only clues they had on how to vote on a particular issue came from their party leaders or from our dutiful reading from the printed page. But what an opportunity we had to fill their minds with our own political agenda -- a la today’s CNN or Brokaw or Jennings or Rather, Fortunately, as pre-teens and teen-agers, we were politically neutral and, unlike today’s so-called mainstream media, we had no political agenda.
There’s a thought. Maybe, we should have 12-year-olds as news anchors. Nah. Since the left-wing bias often enters the process at the reporter and the editor level, our newbie newsreaders would still be reading the same party line.
One party rule. The State had been under one-party rule since its admission to the Union in 1907. In that situation, what the media had to say didn’t matter much. All the shots were called by a handful of party elites. The illiterates always voted the party line. As Lord Acton said: “Power tends to corrupt; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Much later, when I made two trips behind the Iron Curtain, I felt uncomfortably at home. Lesson: Hercules had to divert an entire river to flush centuries of manure from the Augean Stables. We voters can flush the system periodically by simply changing those in charge.
Divided government. But we voters should also make clear who is in charge. If the executive branch is in the hands of one party and the legislative branch belongs to another party or vice versa, it is almost impossible to fix responsibility for what goes well and for what goes wrong. And, if the executive and legislative branches are at each other’s throats most of the time, the chances are that more will go wrong than go right. Some people seem to like it that way. But it is a poor way to run a government or anything else, for that matter.
As we approach the first elections of the new century, I hope we bear in mind some of the lessons learned in the old century: Read a variety of points of view, keep the system honest by alternating the two parties in power and yet make just one party responsible until it is time to change parties.
One additional lesson: Parents should hold their children in their laps and read to them. If the parents of those illiterate legislators had not been illiterate themselves, the bizarre events that seared my political psyche would not have occurred. Maybe, we’ll have a new First Lady who knows how to inspire parents to read to their children.
William Hamilton, a nationally syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, is a former professor of political science and history.