the Stephen King science-fiction story called "The Jaunt,"
a family prepares to travel to Mars using an interplanetary teleportation
device. As they wait for departure time to arrive, the father
tells his young son about how the technology was developed. It
seems that in the initial experiments, lab rats that had been
teleported all behaved erratically and died, unless they were
given sleeping medication beforehand. For that reason, explains
the father, it became standard operating procedure to give humans
a soporific gas before beaming them through the molecular reassembler.
This being a Stephen King story, the kid holds his breath, and
makes the trip to Mars fully awake. Emerging on the other side,
the father awakes to the horrific sight of his son clawing out
his own eyes, cackling and screaming: "Long Jaunt, Dad! Longer
than you think! I saw! I know! Itís forever in there! Longer
than you think!"
forgotten about this story until recently, when, on a whim, I
decided to read and review VP candidate Joseph Liebermanís new
Praise of Public Life. Itís a thin volume, a mere 164
pages. But believe me, itís longer than you think.
written with an eye toward the campaign trail rarely brim with
scintillating prose and bold ideas. But even by the low standards
of the genre, Public Life is soul-numbingly dull and stupefyingly
vapid. Senator Lieberman is obviously an intelligent fellow; but
the defense of good-government centrism that he and coauthor Michael
DíOrso have produced in Public Life would embarrass a fifth-grade
social studies teacher.
announces the bookís purpose in the introduction: to provide a
defense of politics as a career. And to that end, thereís hardly
a public-school platitude that isnít trotted out here, and dressed
up as the wisdom of the ages. Want to know where the term-limits
movement goes wrong? Well, "when we need a plumber, we seek a
professional... Why should we ask any less of the people who run
our government?" Interested in hearing why the anti-government
cynics are misguided? According to Lieberman, Teddy Roosevelt
said it best: "The government is us. We are the government, you
and I." (I sure wish "we" would stop stripping close
to half of my nominal salary from my every paycheck.) Finally,
have you ever asked yourself, "Why in the world would anyone,
including the next generation, choose to live the public life
of a politician?" The answer? Yep, itís "to make a difference."
Believe it or not, "for all that is wrong with our system of government...
it remains a place where one can make a difference."
schmiffrence. One suspects that the motive force behind the professional
politician was better explained by that old rascal George Wallace,
when he said that there were only two things that mattered in
life: "Thatís money and power, and I donít care about money."
so many who want to "make a difference," Lieberman is
infatuated with policy proposals that would make the world worse.
On campaign-finance reform, he writes: "although we probably
cannot constitutionally limit the amount of money special interest
groups spend on issue advertisements during campaigns, we can
do more to make sure they are issue-focused and not candidate
advertisements." Sure we can, "Congress shall make no
law," notwithstanding. But worst of all is Liebermanís proposal
to boost voter turnout. He insists that "we should change the
laws of every state to make it legal for voters to register at
the polls on election day, and we should initiate a very aggressive
multi-media advertising campaign to inspire, shame, and badger
more Americans to vote." If this isnít enough to make one vote
for Bush and Lazio, I donít know what is. In It
Takes a Village, Hillaryís recommended using televisions
in public buildings to show instructional videotapes on good parenting.
Add in Liebermanís scheme, and you wonít be able to go out for
a cup of coffee without learning how to change a diaper and getting
hectored for your lack of public spiritedness. Iíll never leave
to the point, how can any intelligent person think that making
it easier to vote would improve the quality of political discourse
in America? The average voter is already abysmally ignorant. If
Lieberman gets his way, the sort of bovine idiots who make up
Frank Luntzís focus groups will become an even larger chunk of
stupid policy proposals are something weíre all used to. Hardly
a day goes by when we donít hear three dozen of them. Whatís really
unbearable about Public Life is the bookís tone. Imagine
an interminable plane flight spent next to a relentlessly cheery
Amway salesman. Imagine E.J. Dionne on Prozac. ImagineÖ well imagine
reading a book thatís packed to the gills with sentences like,
"You donít have to be a political scientist or a consultant
speaking to a caucus to know that the public prefers progress
to stalemate and will favor elected officials in both parties
who cooperate to get results."
the same spirit of stale bipartisanship, Lieberman is annoyingly
ecumenical in his praise of the many swell people heís met in
public life: here a kind word for Bill Bennett, there a note of
praise for Chris Dodd. He even writes, unironically, of "Fritz
Mondaleís wit." Which, come to think of it, sounds like the
punchline to a joke that begins: what book is even thinner than
Bill Clintonís Guide to Dating Etiquette?
seems baffled that few Americans share his exalted view of politics
and politicians. But itís fairly easy to understand why politicians
are held in such low esteem. Dissembling and lying are essential
to the trade. Exhibit A is Joe Lieberman, Vice-Presidential candidate.
As a Senator, Lieberman had a reputation for independence of mind
on such issues as racial preferences, cultural decline, and Social
Security privatization. But after kissing Maxine Watersí ring,
yukking it up with Hollywood degenerates, and disavowing privatization
with a phony, unpublished op-ed demanded by the Gore campaign,
little of that reputation remains. Heís sold it for the chance
at a bucket of warm spit.
George Wallace, Lieberman doesnít much care about money, but he
does care about power. Though he joked in the VP debates about
dropping out of politics and making a better salary, heís structured
this campaign to ensure that he need never endure the vicissitudes
of private sector employment. By running a dual candidacy for
Vice-President and for reelection to his Connecticut Senate seat heís
hurt the Democratsí chances of taking the Senate. Should Gore
be elected, Connecticutís Republican governor John Rowland will
get to pick the new Senator. As Liebermanís spokesman put it,
"Senator Lieberman is keeping his commitment to the people
of Connecticut and will remain a candidate for the U.S. Senate."
But presumably, that commitment wasnít just about Joe Lieberman.
It had something to do with the policies Lieberman supports; and
the people of Connecticut are more likely to enjoy the benefits
of those policies with a Democratic Senator than a Republican
one. "Making a difference" is all well and good, apparently,
but not if it means Joe Lieberman has to get a regular job.
Joe Lieberman during this race, many have come to suspect that
the "conscience of the Senate" is really just a pious
fraud. But as Public Life makes clear, itís even worse
than that: heís a bore.
Healy is an attorney practicing in Northern Virginia.