Shun privilege, take up service

WILEY A. HALL

January 07, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall

"We've got to change the way we look at government," intoned a grim-faced Governor Schaefer on television the other day.

The rest of us groaned out loud, figuring as we did that the governor was laying the groundwork for more bad news: more layoffs, more cutbacks in services, higher taxes.

Only my buddy, Will B. Humble, was favorably impressed.

"The governor," said Humble, "is a courageous man."

Let me bring you up to date, right quick. The governor, as you probably know, had made his famous message to the masses speech about a week before Christmas. This was the speech in which Schaefer let us know that the state was tottering on the brink of ruin and that it wasn't his fault.

So, there I was, a beer halfway to my mouth, as I stared at my buddy in amazement.

"You're kidding, right?"

"You heard him," answered Humble, gesturing toward the TV screen. "He wants us to change the way we look at government."

"So?"

"So, he's government, right? Or at least part of it. So, he's asking us to look at him differently. In my mind, that takes guts."

I shook my head.

"I think you missed the point," I said.

"But you heard. . . ," protested my friend.

"No, Humble," I said firmly. "No."

Indeed, most people have interpreted the thrust of the governor's televised speech to mean that the public must learn to lower its expectations, give more and expect less -- sort of a variation on JFK's famous quotation about asking not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

Humble, as far as I can tell, is the only man in this whole, entire state, who thinks the governor is planning to give up some of his privileges. He even believes that Jacqueline F. McLean, the city's newly elected comptroller, was making a poignant point about government waste when she celebrated her position as the city's fiscal watchdog by ordering a fabulous new $19,889 Mercury Grand Marquis at city expense.

"I tell you," he insisted, "it must be true. It's like performance art. She was trying to demonstrate the absurdity of giving a car to the city's top officers at a time when we can't even keep the schools open."

"No, Humble," I said again. "Wake up, Humble."

Fact is, we treat our elected officials like demi-gods here and, although they have been moaning and groaning and crying the fiscal blues for nearly a year, not one of them has suggested surrendering his or her privileges.

The governor, for instance, gets a mansion to live in and servants to keep it clean. He gets a limousine to ride in and a chauffeur to drive it for him. He has a state trooper at one elbow and a personal assistant at the other. He can charge most of his entertaining expenses to the state, of course. He gets a handsome allowance to take care of his living expenses. He has access (presumably unlimited access) to the state yacht.

On top of all of that, he just got a $25,000 raise.

State legislators also get generous travel allowances and living expenses as they trudge down to Annapolis each year. All of them enjoy free parking privileges. The very important officials get free parking and a state car. In the city, the mayor, the city solicitor, the director of public works and a host of others get their own cars. Officials in every county in the state enjoy their own individual perks.

I can understand why we do this, of course. What's the point of being a very important person if you aren't treated like one? What the point of being powerful if you have to live like a grunt?

The question is, can we still afford to treat our elected officials like royalty? Isn't it about time we stopped looking at elected offices as a privilege and started looking at it as a service?

"I tell you," insisted Humble, "that is exactly what the governor was trying to say. He wants to be allowed to live like the rest of us, now. Jackie McLean, too."

I laid a kindly hand on his shoulder.

"Humble," I said gently, "you're a nice guy but you've got a lot to learn about the psychology of the very important."

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