What a thrill to hear candor in Congress

MIKE ROYKO

June 28, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

It isn't often that you hear a politician say honestly and clearly what he has in mind for the American taxpayer.

That's why I was thrilled almost to tears when I recently heard Tom Foley, speaker of the U.S. House, make an emotional speech to his colleagues, urging them to pass President Clinton's money package.

"This is a time to stand and deliver!" Foley told his fellow Democratic congressmen.

That is one of the most truthful statements of intent ever uttered by an American congressman, and Foley should be hailed for saying it.

As soon as I heard it, I went to my bookshelves and rummaged until I found a tattered and dusty book I hadn't looked at in many years: "Folk Songs of North America," by Alan Lomax.

Browsing through, I found what I was looking for: a rousing old Irish song that was brought here by the early settlers. It begins:

As I was goin' over Gilgarra Mountain,

I met Colonel Pepper and his money he was countin'.

I drew forth me pistols and I rattled me saber,

Saying 'Stand and deliver for I am a bold deceiver.'

There they were -- "Stand and deliver" -- the very same words uttered by Foley.

So what does it mean, "Stand and deliver"?

Well, if you are at all familiar with the language of jolly old England, or jolly old Scotland and jolly old Ireland, you know that "Stand and deliver" was another way of saying: "Stick 'em up and give me your money."

It was a phrase used by the highwaymen, those robbers who would stop travelers in their carriages and take them for their money and other valuables.

This was confirmed by Jay Schleusener, chairman of the English Department at the University of Chicago and an authority in Old and Middle English.

" 'Stand and deliver' is, at minimum, an 18th century phrase used by highway robbers. Basically, you point your gun and say: 'Stand and deliver,' which everybody knew meant, 'Stick 'em up,' " the professor said.

It was also noted by William Safire, the New York Times columnist and language expert, who described it as "the most ill-considered phrase uttered on the floor of the House of Representatives this year. . . . The phrase today still carries the connotation of mounted theft. It's not a locution a politician wants to apply to a representative's relations with the taxpayers."

I'm surprised that Safire disapproved of Foley's refreshing outburst of candor. When was the last time Safire heard any politician, much less the speaker of the House, get right up there on TV and urge his colleagues to tell the taxpayers to stick 'em up and hand over their money.

(Of course, Washington politicians are known to say words to that effect in private conversations with lobbyists, PACs and other favor seekers and vote buyers.)

But what refreshing frankness, to proclaim the intent to pull off a heist in public. Especially at a time when government spending isn't government spending; it is investing. And when taxes aren't taxes; they are revenue enhancements.

Stand and deliver! What a fine phrase.

Maybe we should consider changing the wording on our money. The phrase "In God We Trust" could be replaced with "Stand and Deliver."

I've always thought that mentioning God on the incredible shrinking dollar was kind of irreverent. On any given day, so many terrible things are done with money: swindling, conniving, bribing, robbing. All those billions of dollars being used for disreputable purposes. Could God possibly want his name connected with such enterprises?

But "Stand and Deliver" -- that makes sense. Especially when talking about the White House and Congress grabbing it, then tossing it every which way.

A useless space station? Stand and deliver about $15 billion. A useless superconducting supercollider? Stand and deliver another $15 billion.

Those words could be etched over the entrances to every government building in Washington. And beyond -- on every federal building in the country.

They should be printed on every government form, every government envelope, especially those used by the Internal Revenue Service.

The bureaucrats who answer government phones should be required to say: "U.S. Department of This and That. How can we help you stand and deliver?"

President Clinton has begun having musical evenings in the White House, inviting famous musicians with whom he jams.

Maybe some evening he will have old-time folk music. If so, I have taken the liberty of revising the lyrics of that song I mentioned above. Sort of an updated version that Clinton might want to sing:

As I was comin' out of the Ozark Mountains

I saw all those voters and their money I was countin'

I drew forth my programs and I rattled the numbers,

Saying stand and deliver for I am a taxing wonder.

By the way, Foley was aware of the traditional meaning of the "stand and deliver" line.

An aide to Foley said: "Yes, he knew what it meant. But he used it anyway. He meant it to mean 'Do the courageous thing.' He was telling members to stand up and do the responsible thing and vote for it."

Oh, he's just being modest. Or else he believes that "stick 'em up" is a way of telling people to use flypaper.

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