HAS THERE been any other recent time when politicians, particularly those in Washington, have been in such bad odor? The only heartfelt political movement this election season is the one to throw each and every incumbent out of Congress. There is even a formal movement to that effect.
At least since Will Rogers, Congress has been good for a laugh. Now nobodylaughs any more. The disgust is palpable, the anger rising. There is the savings-and-loan mess. The budget deadlock. The junkets. The arrogance. It starts to add up after a while. The big reason for the president's own drop in popularity is the perception that he's soft on Congress.
Something happens to perfectly good people when we send them to Washington; they turn into pompous bores. And boors. It's the well known Washington Syndrome. Maybe it's something in the water.
I had a phone conversation the other day with a congressional aide, and I can't get it out of my head. I called about some aspect of the Hydra-headed savings-and-loan debacle, and before I knew it, he was accusing me of interrupting him. I apologized, of course, but I thought: I knew this guy when he was a young reporter -- back before he was a congressional aide and we could carry on a spirited conversation without such accusations. To be accused of discourtesy is no light thing, at least for a Southerner. My feelings got hurt. I began to count to three before replying to make certain there would be no repetition of the offense, but to no avail.
When I made it clear that I took the accusation seriously, he said it was a "side issue," an irrelevance. But the way in which a conversation is carried on may be more important than any subject discussed.
People may eventually get the substance of their disagreement straight if they remain civil, but if they can't speak to one another without declaring verbal war, nothing will ever be settled. I made the mistake of broaching this now unusual theory to the aide, but I suspect he thought I was only trying to score rhetorical points. In the end, he suggested that we both agree that (a) dialogue was important, and (b) it was wrong to interrupt.
What can you do? I told him that his conclusion was as nice a piece of closure as I'd heard lately. He seemed to take that as a compliment. The liberating object of dialogue, however, is not to end it but to lift it to a higher level of understanding. I had failed. Maybe I had wanted to talk and he was used to negotiating. Once again, Washington proved too much for me. It's proving too much for many Americans.
Perhaps that is the essence of the Washington Syndrome: the replacement of civility with strategy, the demotion of courtesy to side issue, and the reduction of conversation to negotiation, negotiation, negotiation. Spend every day negotiating, and it does something to the soul. Trust shrivels. The idea of the general welfare becomes an abstraction, even slightly suspect.
Washington is but a reflection of the country, but to watch its antics, its minute-to-minute self-absorption, is a bit like having the reflection in the mirror start to talk back and give orders. It's as though the roles of public and public servant had been reversed.
I'm not saying the rest of America knows nothing of empty arrogance and petty calculation, or that we never confuse ourselves with the center of the universe. But at least out here in Pine Bluff, Ark., in what F. Scott Fitzgerald called the dark rolling fields of the republic, we may be a little more ashamed of such tendencies -- maybe because we don't have a national press corps paying endless court to our pretensions. The lights aren't quite as blinding out here; it may be possible to see others.
An earnest literary type once asked Flannery O'Connor why Southern writers always wrote about such strange people -- grotesques and freaks. She said it was because we in the South can still tell a freak when we see one. Surely that is true of other expanses of the republic. But I'm not sure that, given sufficient exposure to the Washington Syndrome, those who get caught up in it can make so elemental a distinction.
Paul Greenberg is editorial page editor of the Pine Bluff, Ark. Commercial.