God and man at politics

September 21, 1994|By Russell Baker

HARK, YE spinmeisters, polling quacks, image consultants, tooth cappers, direct-mailers and all such agents of the new-time political religion!

Hark ye, and listen to the lesson of Marion Barry, who once committed sin and, yea, was even filmed in the commission thereof, and now repents.

And lo, is he not now redeemed by the voters of Washington?

Thus he saith, and so say too the soothsayers wise in the meaning of all things and who are known in the Land of Blah as the media. Thus speaketh the . . .

Sorry. It's the sudden political revival of old-time religion that tempts me to this poor imitation of the majestic 17th-century style.

Marion Barry says he has triumphed because of "redemptive" politics. Maybe so. He is not the only politician urging voters to play God by granting him redemption and, more to the point of course, public office.

Just across the Potomac from Marion Barry, Oliver North runs for a Virginia Senate seat by offering voters the same heady opportunity Mr. Barry offered Washingtonians: a chance to play redeemer to one who has stooped to rascality.

Mr. North's exploitation of the redeemer pitch makes his pose different from Mr. Barry's old-fashioned, contrite sinner. Mr. North is God's unashamedly angry man.

If Mr. North sinned it was sin committed in a higher cause than the unheroic government man's obligation to protect and defend the Constitution. It was to save us all from evil centered in Iran, Nicaragua and, alas, in the U.S. Congress.

Only the flimsiest of legal technicalities saved Mr. North from going to jail for running his own illegal Iran-contra policy inside the White House. Mr. North being saved by the fussy old law is funny only because it had been his contempt for the law's niceties that got him in trouble to start with.

His Virginia campaign is heavily supported by leaders of the so-called "Christian right," who sometimes seem to be even more right than Christian.

By helping him win the nomination, they left the impression that Virginia Christians -- at least of the right -- had either already forgiven him of law-breaking sin, or believed a higher power justified breaking the law, leaving no sin that needed forgiving.

Mr. North's campaign is based on the combative higher-power view. This makes its religious appeal different from Marion Barry's. It treats the election as a plebiscite to determine if the rest of Virginia will stand on the Lord's side. If so, it must send His angry man to trample out the Congress where the grapes of wrath are stored.

It's an old truth about politicians that voters love to forgive them, but that to win forgiveness they must first confess error. President Nixon ignored the rules by pretending innocence in the Watergate affair until the evidence crushed him.

Years spent afterward seeking redemption gained him some esteem in the media, but never enough among the powerful to earn readmission to government councils.

Those cynics with which the country is said to swarm may fear an onset of politicians urging us to look at their clay feet, so we will grant them payroll continuity.

Will Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., confess transgressions still undreamed of and sweep back into office in a landslide? Will Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, announce that, champion of tight budgets though he be, he is one of the biggest pork snatchers in Congress, and so be nominated and elected president by acclamation?

I wouldn't push the proposition too far after noting that it's refreshing to see religion back in politics again after all those years of nothing but godless television commercials.

Old-timers might even be skeptical about the theory that Marion Barry was forgiven into office. The ancient rule holds that you can't beat somebody with nobody, and nobody was pretty much the name of Mr. Barry's opposition.

Old-timers might wonder too whether Mr. North is well advised to run as God's man in conservative Virginia.

Its great men used to include Madison and Jefferson, who warned against mixing God and politics. Today's Virginia is more notable for the Reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. To them church and politics are the same thing.

Russell Baker is a syndicated columnist.

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