Congress, said H.L. Mencken, or perhaps it was Will Rogers, cost him about twelve dollars a year in taxes to support the institution, which was an unmatched bargain for entertainment. The statement was made during the raucous 20’s, when things seemed to be going along pretty well, and the antics of our leaders did not usually result in inescapable and intolerable burdens. Congress, of course, costs a lot more today. Will Rogers was lost in 1935 and Mencken about the same time gave up political reporting for other interests. The whole thing has become a lot less funny, but we might as well get what enjoyment we can out of it—that’s all the benefit we will get.

They are all funny, politicians, but perhaps the funniest are the establishment conservatives, who will provide us with many occasions for hilarity during the coming presidential campaign. The last time, during the Republican National Convention, they stridently demanded attention and representation. They got Dan Quayle, whom Bush and the media immediately identified as theirs, though most of them had never heard of him. Their one big payoff turned out to be a liability.

Probably the most amusing part of the whole campaign will be watching Bush, whose affirmative action quota bill was barely distinguishable from the Democrats’ affirmative action quota bill, pose as the antiquota hero.

The knee-jerk conservatives rallied to the defense of Judge Clarence Thomas in the same fashion, because he was denominated the conservative candidate, though no one has ever explained whether or why this is actually so. They declared their determination not to allow Judge Thomas to be “borked.” But this is silly. Bork was a serious scholar who would have intellectually remolded federal jurisprudence. That is why he had to be defeated. There is no evidence that Thomas will provide anything to the Court except a correct vote now and then, if even that is certain. Something thousands of potential nominees could do, and many of them better. Liberals put up a token opposition to Thomas, but they know they really have little to fear.

Further, if we are to take Thomas seriously in his intellectual positions, he is a “higher law” philosopher, something which is more alien and potentially more dangerous to what is left of our constitutional patrimony than even the fulminations of Justice Brennan. Let us hope we don’t have to take it seriously. It is reported that Thomas’s “higher law” writings were ghosted by a disciple of Professor Harry Jaffa, allegedly the author of the famous speech in praise of extremism that cost Barry Goldwater ten million votes.

But perhaps the establishment conservatives are not as dumb as I think. Maybe it is a fact that few of them have enough base to get reelected without the assistance of presidential glamour, since we now have an imperial rather than a representative government. That would explain why, except for Jesse Helms, none of them ever oppose their President, though the liberal Republicans do so whenever they want.

As one who spent an embattled youth as a “conservative” inside the academy, I feel I have earned the right to laugh at what “conservatism” has become. One must either laugh or cry.

And, of course, we can always fall back on the dubious consolation that the Democrats are worse. The Republicans have betrayed their middle-class constituency at every turn, which makes them ripe for revolt. But the Democrats are incapable of disengaging themselves from weirdness long enough to make any political capital out of it. Or perhaps they don’t want to. Actually, the division of power between the Republican President and the Democratic congressional leadership, who disagree about nothing significant, makes the perfect arrangement for the imperial state. The most normal and logical thing for the Democrats to do is to nominate Bush for the presidency, in which case they would win the election—and get rid of Dan Quayle in the bargain.

It is impossible to find intellectual and ethical bankruptcy any greater than the turn the Democrats have taken on the Bush-Solarz war in the Persian Gulf. A great many , voted against it, but now that it is over and popular, all we hear is the plaintive cry that they were not unpatriotic, they just wanted more time for the sanctions to work. I would submit that there is political capital to be made even yet out of honest criticism of the war—the cost in blood and treasure, the confused and dubious goals, the exposure of military technology that would have been better saved for a more important occasion. There remains something inherently foolish—and tragic—about using an artillery battery to kill a rat, a rat that was half dead already. But political capital totally aside, criticism of the war, now that the action is over, would be, for a principled opposition party, the right thing to do, which is why it will never happen.

And truly, if the Democrats had any spirit, any integrity, any faith in their own convictions, they would nominate for Bush’s opponent the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who is far and away their most articulate, most charming, and most sincere leader. But this, of course, they will never do. Jackson at least has had the guts and the patriotism to complain about the loss of family farms and the shipment of American bluecollar jobs offshore—something no leading Republican has had the integrity to do, as far as I know.

Watch Jackson when the cameras go in close. He is a real human being—one who has suffered and thought. (I write completely without irony.) Though he is sometimes half-baked in his solutions—what leading politician isn’t—he speaks from the heart about real problems, and once he has taken up an idea he does not retreat just because it’s unpopular. That is, unlike Bush, he really represents his constituency. Allowing for differences of style, he is in no rationally describable sense any more of a demagogue than Bush—and a lot more sincere. Beside him Bush looks like a preppie, and the other Democratic presidential contenders like pyramid scheme salesmen.