Sarbanes carries the torch FDR lighted long ago

October 30, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

I'll tell you about this Paul Sarbanes, who's in politics though not so you'd always notice. He went on public television the other night, where Bill Brock called him a stealth senator, meaning Sarbanes is so low-profile as to be invisible. And I had to admit Brock had a point, and I also wanted to punch him right in the nose for saying it.

Sarbanes is now finishing a quarter-century on Capitol Hill. And I talk to him once in a while and write about him here and there, and most of the time I like what he says and once in a while, to be as honest as I can, I don't entirely understand everything he's talking about.

You can coast over the tough parts. It's like listening to the opera. The language is foreign, but you know the essence of the story and catch the strength and conviction in the notes, and you can figure out who's in control and who's not.

Among those who's not is Bill Brock. In the Maryland Public Television debate, after an opening few issues that both men seemed to be addressing in some foreign tongue, Sarbanes proceeded to hammer Brock about his disgusting record on civil rights and the environment, and his deplorable absences when he was representing the state of Tennessee, whereby Brock, and there is no arguing about this because it happened right there in front of everybody, tried to change the subject.

He would chuckle at some length, as if something terribly amusing was going on to which no one else in the entire state was privy, and then commence to tell some anecdote about people in the various towns of Maryland saying, Gee, Bill, it sure is nice to see you here because that fellow Sarbanes never does come around.

Salisbury, for example. Brock's saying some guy in Salisbury's complaining Sarbanes is never there, which actually is pretty funny since Sarbanes is over there all the time to see his mother and his brother.

But the part about wanting to punch Brock in the nose comes now. It's a phony issue, this business of Sarbanes getting around the state, and Brock knows it. The great majority of us, maybe 97 percent in this whole country, never see our national representatives at all, except for a shot on the evening news.

Paul Sarbanes, you're almost never going to see on the evening news. He is known as a bad sound bite. He doesn't talk in punchy one-liners, and he doesn't summon the networks every time he belches, and so, between elections, nobody sees a lot of him.

From this, Brock declares Sarbanes a man who's out of touch, whose face you never see and who therefore doesn't work at the job. Ironically, it's a charge to which Brock's more than a little vulnerable, as he arrives in the state of Maryland rather late in his life, but this, too, is not quite his biggest problem, which is his inability, or his lack of desire, to articulate what would make him a different senator than Paul Sarbanes.

Sarbanes is a classic liberal, in a time when the attachment of such a term is often intended as a slur. Brock's a conservative in a time when certain elements are dragging this title into such far reaches of the ideological right that they drift off political radar screens.

These are differences worth talking about. In Boston, Ted Kennedy is challenged seriously for the first time. In New York, Mario Cuomo fights for his career. They are the giant standard-bearers of old-time liberalism, the vocal, dynamic, outsized, outspoken versions of Sarbanes, who votes the way they do, but doesn't make as much noise about it.

It's worth asking about that brand of liberalism, and whether it has outlived its day, as the conservatives claim, or still gives this country its humanistic bedrock. That's a debate candidates for the U.S. Senate should have.

The old-line liberals still cling to a vision of Franklin Roosevelt, who took over a country not only staggering through the Depression but also trying to adjust the cruel inequities of its economic system.

As Joseph Alsop wrote a decade ago, in his biographical study "FDR," "On a very wide front and in the truest possible sense, Franklin Roosevelt included the excluded."

In making government a permanent part of our lives, he started a process that brought fairness into the American marketplace -- a place not only of money, but of academics, of political opportunity, of living in a safe place, of growing old with grace.

The question before us now, though, is whether such a vision still holds.

The poor and disenfranchised, once seen as noble, are now perceived as dangerous. The government gives, and the poor take and still want more.

Much of this is race-related. The conservatives don't like to mention race, owing to our modern political correctness, but when they talk of crime and drug abuse and family breakdown, the numbers alone tell a terrible story.

But they're not the only numbers. There are millions of black people who have created a miracle, which nobody notices because they're not mentioned on the evening news, of achieving middle-class breakthroughs unknown to previous generations of their families.

They did it at least partly because the government insisted, over the last half-century, that we observe certain fundamental fairness, which was written into law and policy.

Is it working? That's worth talking about. It's the kind of thing senatorial candidates should be talking about, and when they don't, they not only insult each other, they seem to think the rest of us can't figure it out.

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