Old joke about someone moving from one place...


September 26, 1990|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

THERE IS AN old joke about someone moving from one place toanother, raising the average intelligence of both places. John Silber moved from Texas to Massachusetts, increasing the conservatism of both states.

Yep. Silber, who won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Massachusetts last week, is widely regarded as a conservative in that state. He was run out of Texas for his liberalism.

That was in 1970. Silber was dean of the college of arts and sciences at the University of Texas. His liberalism -- against capital punishment, active in some civil rights causes -- helped get him fired by the board of regents.

So he went to Boston University as president. By 1976 most of the university's deans and the faculty senate wanted him out, but he was still there till he took a leave to run for governor as a conservative by Massachusetts standards.

His victory last week is being interpreted as proof that when Americans get fed up with politics as usual they can do something about it. If only that were so. The fact is, the public's disgust with politics as usual usually isn't translatable into throwing the rascals out.

Why? Because incumbents have corrupted the system so that incumbency is for life. This is especially true in Congress. Members of Congress are subsidized in their campaigns year-round and every year, with staff, free mail and printing, telephones, travel -- you name it. So it is almost impossible for a challenger to break through to equal public awareness, especially since private campaign funds are soaked up by incumbents, who blackmail people with financial interest before Congress into giving to them.

Strong language? No. What else would you call it but "blackmail" when members of Congress -- even when debating campaign finance reforms -- admit openly and in most cases unashamedly that contributions pay for "access." "Admit"? Make that "advertise." "You want to get into my office, pal, then pay up."

The day John Silber was shocking the nation, every single member of Massachusetts' congressional delegation was renominated. The closest race was one in which an incumbent got 63.7 percent of the vote. Barney Frank, who was reprimanded by the House of Representatives for using his home and position to further the career of a male homosexual prostitute, was unopposed.

There is almost no impropriety one can be exposed of and not be-renominated. Does the name Roy Dyson ring a familiar bell? This year approximately 400 members of Congress have run for re-nomination -- and all but one won. The loser was Donald Lukens of Ohio, who was defeated after he was convicted in criminal court of a sex crime with a 16-year-old girl.

"There is always the general election," you say. Don't count on it. Congressional Quarterly rates only 25 incumbents potentially vulnerable in November, and most if not all of even that small number will win.

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