April, Poetry and Moonlight

April 10, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

WASHINGTON. — When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd

And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,

I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Washington.--April is a time of memories in America, the month of Lexington and Concord, the month when Jefferson, Monroe, Audubon and Grant were born, when we entered World War I, when Franklin Roosevelt died.

The most heartbreaking moment in our history came at this time of spring, 126 years ago this Sunday, when John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater on Tenth Street. The nation, even including the Southern soldiers trudging home from Appomattox, mourned the fallen president.

No one was more deeply affected than a bearded clerk at the Interior Department. His name was Walt Whitman. He moonlighted as a poet. Before coming to Washington from Brooklyn, he had published a book of poems, ''Leaves of Grass,'' -- scandalous for its time. He arrived in 1862 seeking his wounded brother after the battle of Fredericksburg, and became a familiar figure in the many federal buildings converted into hospitals, where he tenderly cared for both Union and Confederate casualties.

In his grief after Lincoln's death, Whitman wrote his masterpiece, ''When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.'' No work of art, not even the stone memorial with its brooding statue looking down the Mall toward the Capitol, is a more touching and permanent tribute to our greatest president.

The nation is fortunate that when Lincoln died, Congress had not yet tried to correct its own venality and in the process prohibited ordinary federal employees from moonlighting. We may assume that because Whitman was a dedicated artist, to bring out his poem he would have quit his job rather than submit to such a rule. But we can't be sure. The man had to eat.

While our current president is no Lincoln, if he should die it would be a national tragedy, and no doubt both Democrats and Republicans would mourn. Conceivably, someone would be moved to remember him in poetry.

But if that modern Whitman happened to be employed by the federal government, he could not publish his poem, or read it aloud in public -- not if he expected to get paid for it.

Facing public outcry over its easy morals, Congress passed an Ethics Reform Act that took effect last January 1. House members decided they could no longer accept honorariums. To keep this decision from hurting too much, they voted themselves a 25 percent pay raise. The Senate, whose speaking fees are typically higher, could not bring itself to forgo honorariums, so settled for a mere cost-of-living pay boost. But in the process, both houses flatly banned any payment to other government employees for outside writing, speaking or appearances. That applies not only to judges and policy makers, but to doctors, night watchmen, gardeners, everybody.

Illustrations abound of how absurd this is: An ordained Baptist minister can no longer do weddings or funerals after government hours; an IRS employee with a master's degree in geophysics can no longer write or talk on earthquake precautions; another IRS employee can no longer be a part-time baseball writer.

Unlike most of the speeches for which senators get paid, none of those outside interests has the faintest relation to what those employees do on government time. Yet the workers' moonlighting is banned, period, largely because legislators felt that if they themselves had to cut back, others should too.

It is quite reasonable to forbid federal employees to profit by selling government secrets, or running moonlighting businesses out of offices provided by the taxpayer. It is silly to ban innocent after-hours activity that is more hobby than conflict of interest. And despite Congress' apparent inability to draw a line, separating proper from improper is quite possible.

In most non-government companies, simple rules define that difference. Marginal cases are referred to supervisors. Should a truck driver be allowed to sing in a barbershop quartet? Of course. Should a sales manager be allowed to take an expenses-paid vacation from a company that sells what he buys? Don't bother to ask.

Should a clerk at Interior be allowed to write poetry? If the answer had been no, we may have never read of:

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,

Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,

And thought of him I love.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

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