WASHINGTON — IF YOU were making a movie about Jack Gargan, you'd bring back Jimmy Stewart to play the lead. This would be one of those warm, corny 1940s movies where the little guy triumphs over evil.
In the script, as in real 1990s life, Gargan is a retired plumber in Tampa, Fla. He's tearfully sentimental about his grandkids. "I want them to have the same America I had. But politicians are sending it down the tubes."
When Jack Gargan reads about the S&L mess, $124,000 congressional salaries and Washington's budget farce, he steams. He scrapes up $45,000 to run a full-page USA Today ad.
Its headline blares, "I'M MAD AS HELL AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE." A head shot of Gargan shows a beefy man furious enough to heave 535 Washington pols into the Potomac.
Gargan's wild-man act touches a nerve. Twenty thousand letters pour into the organization he invented, T.H.R.O ("Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out"). Gargan gets enough checks to run his ad in 160 newspapers. He lights a national volcano.
"Fire 'em all," Gargan says. "Even the good ones have to go. We need a clean sweep to get out of this desperate mess."
If this were Hollywood, the final scenes would show hundreds of greedy, semi-corrupt, do-nothing congressmen packing their bags. And jubilant folks hoisting heroic Jack Gargan on their shoulders down Main Street.
Well, I've got bad news.
There'll be no happy ending to Jack Gargan's dump-the-dolts crusade.
Yes, I know, news mags and TV networks report a national surge of fury against incumbents. Washington pols are rated slightly higher than crack peddlers, child molesters and S&L bankers. Typically, the cover line on U.S. News & World Report reads, "Throw the bums out!"
The outrage is flat-out real. The budget screw-up incenses everyone. There's a floating, bitter despair. A Washington Post-ABC poll shows 79 percent of Americans think "the country seriously on the wrong track." George Bush has dropped 20 points since his "don't-worry-be-happy" honeymoon. Congress? Hell, people would cheer if the British came back and finished their 1812 Capitol torching.
So on Nov. 6, this outside-the-Beltway furor will kick a bunch of congressfolk and senators out on their pants, right?
Wrong, unfortunately. I suspect talk of an incumbent bloodbath, much like the 1974 Watergate housecleaning, is media moonshine.
Sure, there's anti-politician wrath out there, a deep, sour cynicism toward Democrats, Republicans and Bush. But folks generally forgive their local congressman, the bland, blow-dried fellow who built the new dam and finds their lost Social Security checks. As pollster Harrison Hickman has said, "To throw the bums out, you have to feel you've got better bums."
What's unbeatable is the big green money machine that gives Washington pols their wonderful job security. Common Cause reports challengers in half the Senate races and 382 of 405 congressional contests are "financially uncompetitive," meaning they're whipped in million-dollar paid TV shootouts.
Give the devils their due: Insiders are cleverly running as anti-Washington outsiders. Thus, in North Carolina you hear Sen. Jesse Helms saying in his TV ads, "They want to raise your gas taxes . . . But I'll never vote to raise taxes." And Democrats brag how they saved the elderly and working stiffs from Republican tax horrors.
Nice try, Jack Gargan, but it's a myth that angry voters will send incumbents to the guillotine in droves.
Except for oddities -- John Kerry in Massachussetts and Mark Hatfield in Oregon -- all 32 senators up for re-election are probably safe. I'd guess only a dozen of 405 contested tTC congressfolk will be kicked out. It's the Year of the Overdog.
Sure, voters curse Washington's bumbling arrogance. But until there's a 12-year limitation on careers, the cast won't change.
Sorry, Jack. You're a doomed hero.
America's going to hold its nose and throw the rascals in.
Sandy Grady is a Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.