In November, National Review carried an appreciative piece on the very appreciable William J. Bennett, Secretary of Education. NR‘s Washington inside-dopester, John McLaughlin, concluded that “with a bit of grooming, up-front experience, and continued exposure to Potomac fever [Bennett] may have the making of a politician.” “There are,” he added, “worse corruptions.”
Oh? Name one.
My acquaintance with corruptions, such as it is, teaches me that many are essentially self-destructive (“victimless,” in the current jargon) and that most of the rest involve abusing others one at a time, or in small groups at most. The characteristic corruption of politicians is that they enjoy, or come to enjoy, pushing people around—and politicians, these days, push people around in very large numbers indeed. Our suspicious Founders were on the right track when they tried to bind the power-hungry with the chains of the Constitution. Too bad they’ve slipped those chains.
The problem—and it’s one I gather the Reagan Administration faced in its early days—is that, while big-government ideologues take to politics like ducks to water, most principled anti-Federalists have things they’d rather do than go to Washington and push people around. They have products to manufacture, fields to harvest, books to write, sick people to heal—and if they don’t have something better to do, they’ll find something. They tend to think that politics are not important (mistaking ideal for fact), or at least not worthy. In any case, few have enough sense of duty to overcome their distaste for Washingtonians, or the instincts to flourish among them if they do. What this means is that a conservative administration has to fill many of its positions either with the incompetent, who need the work, or with slimy politicos of the sort that run college student governments.
But the saddest spectacle of all is that of good people going to Washington and succumbing to Potomac fever. John McLaughlin is a case in point: no column of his would be complete without at least one lip-smacking reference to “insiders”—pals of his who have told him something or other. The man clearly enjoys his job more than he should. Similarly, there are several folks I knew some years back as wholesome, antistatist lads and lasses who went to D.C. as members of the Reagan team. They now live and breathe politics, read the Washington Post unapologetically, and speak in reverential tones of “the President,” “the Secretary,” or “the Senator.” That this feeds their own self-importance is sad, but relatively harmless. Far worse is that it feeds the self-importance of their bosses, who should be incessantly reminded that their jobs rest on something very like extortion.
Washington attracts unpleasant characters in the first place, and something in the atmosphere turns even apparently decent people into toadies, sycophants. Post readers, li The American Spectator can survive its move from Bloomington with its irreverence intact, it will be some kind of first. It has moved, after all, to a town that thinks Mark Russell is funny.
Real Americans don’t like Washington. We’ll go there, ride the subway, take in the museums. . . . What the hell—we’ve paid for it. But some of us feel unclean after we’ve been there a while. My wife and I were driving home once through Virginia, after a weekend spent with an assortment of policy analysts. Legal Services lawyers, consumer advocates. Congressional staffers, and the like. When a long line of Army vehicles passed us, headed north, my wife (God bless her) turned and yelled, “Go get ’em, boys!”
Well, anybody who’s had anything to do with the military knows that’s not the answer, but there’s no denying that the old boil-lancing impulse surfaces whenever my nose gets rubbed in how America’s substance is splashed around and taken for granted. (I guess it could be worse, though. Thank God, one of my more down-home friends says, that we don’t get all the government we pay for.)
In my own line of work, I see a lot of colleges and universities, and I have concluded that you can generally tell how good a university is by the architectural prominence of its administration building. The relationship is inverse. At Oxford, for example, the administrative offices of the university are tucked away on a side street—very difficult to find without directions. Oxford is a great university. One of its officers told me once that he looks in the mirror every morning and says to himself “I know I’m an evil, but am I a necessary evil?”
Bill Bennett may very well perform the same morning ritual. If so, I hope he keeps it up. We’d be better off if all of John McLaughlin’s friends did it. Maybe Reagan—excuse me, the President—could suggest it in his next speech. But I can’t imagine Tip O’Neill, Ted Kennedy, or Lowell Weicker going along. The sad thing is that too many one-time conservatives wouldn’t buy it either.