What I Saw in the Imperial City

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people's good is the highest law"
~ Cicero, "De Legibus"

Recently a
nameless benefactor, in a Sisyphean effort to provide me with a
modicum of the professional training I gravely lack, made it possible
for me to spend a week in Washington, D.C. Wherewith, I eagerly
haunted the hallowed halls of Congress and learned to scarf Congressional
Bean Soup with the best of them. I strolled the old carriage lanes
the length of the National Mall and entertained myself hugely in
visiting a vast array of taxpayer-subsidized monuments, museums,
and gardens. After one such ramble, I rested contentedly on the
steps of the Capitol. Gazing with wizened eyes towards the Washington
Monument there came unbidden to my mind the famous words of Gibbon:

“It was at
Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amid the ruins
of the capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers
in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline
and fall of the city first started to my mind…. "

Well, in place
of barefoot friars, the omnipresent black-clad Capitol Police had
to do. And just as inevitably my thoughts, though originally circumscribed
to the City, gave way as did Gibbon's to musings on the decline
and fall of empire.

So herewith,
as a token of compensation to my unnamed benefactor, are the impressions
of a political naïf wandering unsupervised in the lair of Leviathan,
a citizen out of time, holding quixotically to the notion that the
United States are a constitutional republic, that the Constitution
circumscribes and enumerates the powers of the central government,
and that in general the government which governs best, governs least.

One has only
to stroll through the teeming concourse of Union Station and out
into the surrounding streets to completely obliterate from the mind
any lingering picture of the sleepy Southern town of yesteryear,
a capitol city so uncomfortable and lacking in amenities that Congress
hurried to get its work done so as to sooner leave the pestiferous
place. No, Washington is as noxious to the agricultural yeoman as
it is nutrimental to the parasitic managerial elite. It exhales
the atmosphere of a self-conscious capitol city as hordes of people
hustle purposely about humming with importance and power. The street
scene is populated by all races, languages, and cultures drawn as
were the Dacii and Alemanii to Rome as the locus of
influence and opportunity. What do all these people do? Can it be
possible they all derive their living from the activities of a handful
of elected representatives and to the departments, bureaus, institutes
they fund and regulate? Yes, in a complete inversion of the Founders'
vision, the ripples of money and power radiate outward from the
Capitol like the solar wind throughout every square inch of the
country's political and economic universe.

The architecture
of Washington is a hoot. The Mall is flanked on both sides with
monumental buildings of Beaux Arts grandiosity. I suppose it is
meant to recall the Rome of old, and evince the new American power’s
legitimacy, importance, and permanence. To me, the faux grandeur
falls flat; it seems to try too hard, with one shameless monolith
after another shouting, “Look at me! Important!”

But I like
the quirky and inefficient Smithsonian Castle and to my eye the
cast iron dome of the Capitol is a thing of beauty. But step inside
the rotunda, and floating high above the floor is Constantino Brumidi's
huge and absurd fresco, "The Apotheosis of Washington."
From the time of Augustus the Roman emperors were routinely deified
upon death and so too, the Father of Our Country is here depicted
sitting upon clouds as he ascends into heaven. The befuddled Virginian,
who in life eschewed any sort of royal title, is clad in imperial
purple, flanked by the goddess of liberty and the winged figure
of fame, and surrounded by a myriad of allegorical figures too hackneyed
to be believed. It is rather easier to picture the same Washington
in Valhalla, grinding his dentures at the ironic absurdity of it

There are a
lot of places to eat in Washington. None of the Italian restaurants
I saw had braciola on the menu. That's enough to keep me from living

It's surprising
just how accessible the Members of Congress are. You can breeze
into any Member's office and be greeted by an eager young staffer
who seems glad to see you, and who will give you gallery passes
and other goodies if you ask. If the pooh-bah himself is present,
and you don't look too smart, he may even come out to shake your
hand. Anyone with a tolerance for balderdash, or a few drinks in
him, can sit in on Congressional hearings and observe floor action
from the Senate or House galleries. I did lots of both, and was
confirmed in the conviction that they are, to a man, blowhards and
braggarts. The ability to bloviate must be a prerequisite for the
job and the laconic, taciturn, or modest best not apply. And carissimi,
my worst fear was realized: every single damn one of them makes
it clear that he thinks it's his job to take money from some people
and give it to others. This simple fact is the unum necessarium,
the one ineluctable, uncontested bedrock principle of American politics.
If you want to see this principle iconically portrayed, pick up
your representative's latest constituent newsletter. If it does
not have at least one photograph of him/her/it handing some smiling
vassal an oversized check, I'll eat my head.

Peroration on Moral Theology

According to
Thomas Aquinas, in times of necessity it may be justifiable to take
that which belongs to another without permission (the impoverished
plucks an apple from a neighbour’s tree to feed his starving child).
However, transferring this exceptional moral precept to civil law
equates to the licensing of universal larceny. Every sound commentator
on democracy — from Aristotle to de Tocqueville to Michael Oakeshott
— says the same: as soon as the public realizes it can vote itself
benefits out of the public treasury, democracy devolves into a kleptocracy
and the citizenry lapses into unabashed self-interest and luxury.

of Peroration

Of the notion
that the powers of the federal government are constitutionally circumscribed
and enumerated there is not a hint or whisper, not a shadow or penumbra.
The Constitution is like some sort of deity to which Congress pays
homage but does not obey. By a conspiracy it is understood to be
nothing more than talking point, mainly useful as an administrative
and organizational guide.

Congress legislates
what it does not understand. At least that's what I was told by
a happy young lobbyist. She further informed me that it's the lobbyist's
job to educate the Congressman as to what side of a particular issue
it's in his best interest to be on. Of course, the lobbyist plays
Little John to the Congressman's Robin Hood. His purpose is to secure
a share of the loot for his client. The lobbyist's "one-page-leave-behind"
and intense persuasive speeches can be summed up in one word: "Gimme!!"

Congress is
not a think tank. Legislation is the means to redistribute the taxpayer's
dollars, and is composed of equal parts compromise and venality.
Laws are the raw material out of which thousands of bureaucrats
build enormous structures of rules, regulations, and controls each
of which has the force of law, and which you are expected to know
and obey. The last time I looked, the Code of Federal Regulations
was comprised of over 140,000 pages.

I have no
intention of being fair, but if forced to, I would admit that in
their own obtuse way our representatives have what they think are
their constituents' best interests at heart. They seem to be capable
men and women and are generally slick, articulate and intelligent.
But it's clear that their knowledge of issues is broad but extremely
shallow. Details, procedural and substantive, are taken care of
by scores of eager staffers. These hard-working young folks are
the ones who sleep in the offices, gather and synthesize information,
negotiate compromises, write position papers, set the member's schedule
and whisper in his ear. In the district offices at home, proliferating
like donut shops in New England, they provide all sorts of constituent
services (that is, they are taxpayer-funded campaign workers, fixing
problems caused by their bosses in Washington). It looks to me a
lousy job. The main compensation must be "experience on the
Hill" and proximity to the levers of power.

Votes are the
currency of Congress, which members barter, trade, and sell like
demented brokers, personal integrity be damned. This trading of
what should be hard convictions is the Congressional national pastime.
Shortly before resigning his seat to fight in the Mexican War, Representative
Jefferson Davis of Mississippi was asked by a colleague to vote
for another measure so as to obtain a reciprocal vote for his own.
This is what he had to say:

I make no terms, I accept no compromises. If when I ask for an
appropriation, the object shall be shown to be proper and the
expenditure constitutional, I defy the gentleman, for his conscience'
sake, to vote against it. If it should appear to him otherwise,
then I expect his opposition, and only ask that it be directly,
fairly and openly exerted. The case shall be presented on its
single merit; on that I wish to stand or fall."

sentiments — indeed, his language — are manifestly incomprehensible
to the congressman of today, with the noble exception of Rep Paul
of Texas.

Finally, while
riding Amtrak home, I mused on what power and prosperity had wrought.
Then it came to me, a fact so plain that it is simply not seen:
our representatives do not have, and desperately require, philosophy.
Without it, they can’t be anything more than political hacks. For
the just exercise of power they should be conversant with intellects
that are exalted and measured; they must take time to ponder the
thoughts of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Montesquieu. And simply to orient
themselves in history they need to make the acquaintance of Herodotus,
Plutarch, Livy, and Christopher Dawson. Our present malaise consists
of good intentions uninformed by wisdom, historical imagination,
and intellectual modesty. As the scenery flew by my fervent and
spontaneous prayer for all of them was that they may learn to treasure
virtue above all, and draw deep into their souls the words of Tacitus:
"The more corrupt the republic, the more numerous the laws."

28, 2007

Mazzone [send him mail]
writes from his eyrie in Narberth, Pennsylvania.

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