Revolt Against Privilege

RICHARD REEVES

January 27, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO — Albuquerque, New Mexico.--At 6:35 a.m. last Wednesday, a Bernalillo County deputy sheriff named Mark Samrock stopped a car on a highway near here and began writing a ticket charging the driver with speeding, 45 miles per hour in a 35-mph zone. The driver, Virgil Rhodes, stepped out and asked the deputy if he knew who he was talking to. Deputy Samrock said he did not.

''Well,'' Mr. Rhodes said, ''you're going to find out about it in a goddamned hurry.''

Mr. Rhodes, it turned out, is a state senator, and in the course of verbally beating up on Deputy Samrock, quoted (correctly) an 80-year-old state law prohibiting the arrest of state legislators for most infractions short of homicide or treason, if they are on their way to the capital in Santa Fe.

''Who you are isn't the issue; the issue is that you violated the law,'' said the deputy, who was carrying a tape-recorder, as many policemen do to try to protect themselves in these times of privilege and lawsuits. ''Do me a favor, sir: Stop with the intimidation.'' Mr. Rhodes ended his part of the conversation by saying: ''I'm going to drive like hell to get up there to the legislative meeting, and if you try to follow me, you're going to find out . . .''

The next day, Deputy Samrock's chief killed the ticket, citing the old law, actually a part of the state constitution. But by then the press had gotten hold of the tape, and telephones were ringing all over the state in the offices of other legislators and officials. The voices of the people wanted to know: ''Who does this guy Rhodes think he is?''

A day later, without being charged, Senator Rhodes went to traffic court and asked for permission to pay his fine of $31.

The voice of the people is heard in the land. It's code name is ''Zoe.'' The message, a populist one, is, as candidate Bill Clinton said during his campaign, that we're all supposed to be playing by the same rules. The rules say that $507,000-a-year insurance-company lawyers should not be able to buy their way out of child-care problems by hiring illegal aliens. I, like many people, including President Clinton and pooh-bahs of the press, was quite surprised to see Zoe Baird rejected as attorney general for doing that.

Thus ended any illusions I had about being a man of the people. It was a happy ending. I was thrilled to watch the Baird business and to watch the winds from the plains and the plainer people blow away the world-weary words of our leadership class sighing, ''Everybody does it.''

Well, everybody does not break the law, and everybody does not get away with it. This came as a great shock to people of political or economic power, who take for granted both extraordinary privileges and getting away with anything short of the most egregious felonies.

Populist ideas like this will soon be attacked as just envious privilege-bashing. Well, so it is. But those of us with privileges, probably hard-earned ones, have been called to the bar of public opinion -- and it's about time.

We will probably be better for it. My business, the press, is among the American elites that have lost their way. Not so much because we have so many privileges ourselves, but because we have stopped reflecting the populist anger of those who have none. We lost contact with millions of readers and viewers as we became better educated and better paid.

The tabloid press, which once served and titillated what used to be called ''the common man,'' is gone now. That created a vacuum, which has, we now see, been filled by a new kind of popular penny press largely dominated by talk radio and Oprah Winfrey. The more respectable of us, as we see ourselves, lost a big part of our franchise when we lost our sense of outrage. Politicians did the same thing to themselves, abandoning Main Street for Wall Street and K Street, Washington's boulevard of lobbyists and other over-respected privilege dispensers.

Is all this unfair to Virgil and Zoe? Probably is. But they and Bill Clinton and the wizards of Wall Street had better get used to it. The rest of the nation thinks people like us have been unfair to them for too long, and now some of them want to get even. Watch yourself, ruling class!

9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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