THE PITY PARTY was just getting underway the other morning when I tuned the radio to WRKO. Co-hosting the drive-time talk show (on which I have occasionally appeared) were two well-known alumni of the Massachusetts Legislature -- former House speaker Tom Finneran and former representative Marjorie Clapprood -- and the topic of the hour was how unfairly politicians are treated.
WRKO-AM radio host (and former Massachusetts House speaker) Tom Finneran
What had triggered their indignation was a Boston Globe column in which my colleague Scot Lehigh urged the current House speaker, Sal DiMasi, to be more forthcoming about the links between his family, his friends, their business interests, and pending legislation. (Links, to mention but a single example, like those connecting Richard Vitale, the DiMasi pal who lent the speaker $250,000, and the group of ticket brokers who paid Vitale $60,000 under the table to lobby for an end to the restrictions on ticket scalping.)
Finneran and Clapprood touched briefly on the DiMasi kerfuffles, but what they really wanted to vent about was: Why oh why do people think the worst of politicians?
"People automatically assume: oh, politics, the State House -- everyone's a bum up there, everyone's just on the take," Finneran lamented. The public and the media, he and Clapprood complained, are too obsessed with exposing conflicts of interest -- "we are virtually criminalizing friendships," they moaned.
Legislation crafted to benefit an influential legislator's allies? Impossible, they snorted. "You can't pass -- we would never even contemplate passing -- legislation that says, 'Hey, Joe Blow is my friend, and I'm going to write the bill so that Joe's land triples in value,' " insisted Finneran. "Come on!"
Uh-huh. Why would voters ever suspect elected officials of concocting sweetheart deals for their friends, or of putting personal interests ahead of the public interest? Just because the most lucrative patronage appointments routinely seem to go to fellow politicians with no relevant experience? Just because legislative districts are gerrymandered so brazenly that virtually no incumbent ever faces a serious challenge? Just because the Legislature thinks nothing of killing a tax cut that voters passed overwhelmingly, yet manipulates the initiative process to embed automatic legislative pay raises in the state Constitution? Yes, why would anyone ever doubt the integrity of a Massachusetts politician?
A caller tried to inject a note of realism. Look, he said, it's a privilege to be elected to public office. Legislators shouldn't abuse that privilege by finagling a lucrative job for their spouse, or arranging for the Pike to hire their incompetent cousin. That's the kind of thing most voters can't stand.
But Finneran/Clapprood wouldn't budge. People in public office live "in the most unbelievably transparent fishbowl," Finneran said. "If you try to play games -- wink-wink -- you can be sure there are 12 people watching everything you do."
The problem isn't that legislators abuse the voters' trust, Clapprood added. It's that voters don't appreciate the saintliness of their legislators. When she was a state representative, she recalled ruefully, no one ever phoned to say "I love everything you do -- my taxes are perfect, I love the local school, you fix the potholes in the roads and bridges -- you're a good gal." And why the lack of gratitude? Because "the media feed that sense that keeps people away from running and away from voting."
Another caller asked, reasonably enough, why incumbents keep running for reelection if they find the ethical restrictions so onerous and unfair. He pointed out that serious challengers rarely throw their hat in the ring because the rules are rigged to make genuinely competitive elections largely impossible.
"Honey, you're buying what the cynics are selling," Clapprood told him dismissively, "you're buying it hook, line, and sinker." When he had the temerity to stand his ground, she and Finneran berated him: "Do you know who your state rep is?" they demanded. "He doesn't even know who his state rep is!"
Maybe he doesn't. But more disconcerting is what Finneran and Clapprood and so much of the political class don't seem to know -- that a healthy mistrust of government is a core American value, one that runs straight back to the Founders. "Government is not reason; it is not eloquence. It is force," George Washington warned. "Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." Yet Finneran argues that politicians are nothing less than the secret of America's blessings. "The United States is the greatest country on earth," he said, because "good, hardworking people go into public life" and "do the right thing for their community."
Well, I certainly appreciate conscientious public servants, but I'm not blind to the other kind. Most voters aren't. Power does tend to corrupt -- and to bear that fact of life in mind isn't cynicism, it's common sense. Or maybe not so common. What else can it mean, after all, when public figures as sophisticated as Finneran and Clapprood refuse to see something on which the record is so clear, and for which the evidence is so dismally abundant?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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