Imperial Poison

Years ago, when I was not in the newspaper business, I was appointed by a governor to a state historical commission. The appointment required confirmation by the state Senate.

Well, I waited as the weeks went by and heard not a word from the Senate. My wife was expecting our second child and was very close to her due date when, on a late Friday afternoon, I got a phone call from snotty little aide to the senator in charge, ordering me to be in the state Capitol (200 miles away) at 8 a.m. on Monday. No way was I going to miss my child’s birth.

I told the aide that I would not be there, and that his senator had three choices: He could submit questions in writing; he could postpone the hearing; or he could take the appointment and stuff it up his … well, in those days, my language was not always that of a gentleman. I told him I didn’t care which choice he made and hung up on him.

I recall this little story (I was confirmed in absentia) to remind you what I fear more and more Americans have forgotten: This country belongs to the people, not to the government. Politicians, whether they are local, state or federal, are nothing more than the hired help. And they’re all temps, at that. We hire them, and we can fire them. Their job is to serve us, not command us.

Politicians have a bad habit of surrounding themselves with bootlickers and fawning little brats with more ambition than brains. This causes the politicians to inflate their egos and to begin to think they are a cut above the rest of us. Most of them are, in fact, just the south end of a northbound horse. Many of them are laughed at behind their backs by the very people who fund their campaigns.

I know a man who is now a U.S. senator. He moved to my town at the age of 15. He went to college, got a law degree, came back and established a successful practice. He was very active in the community and served on a number of boards. Then, one day, he ran for and was elected county chairman (the chief administrator of county government).

One of the first things he did was hire a bodyguard and a chauffeur. Now, why would anyone think that a man in charge of fixing potholes, running the dog pound and presiding over interminably dull county-commission meetings would be the subject of a terrorist attack, a kidnapping or an assassination attempt? To my knowledge, no county official in the state of Florida has ever been attacked, unless it was by his wife or his mother-in-law. After all, this man had lived in the same city practically all of his adult life and never needed a chauffeur or a bodyguard before.

You see, too often the office inflates the ego. Many people who win public office immediately begin to think that they are much more important than they really are. They forget that the day before the election, they were just plain Joe Citizens, and they don’t know one whit more the day after the election than they did the day before. The only thing that changes is the source of their paycheck.

My fellow Americans, it doesn’t have to be this way (remember that line from Sen. John Edwards’ campaign?). There was a time when presidents and members of Congress and governors and legislators, much less local officials, acted in a perfectly normal manner.

When President Harry Truman finished his term, he and his beloved Bess caught a cab, went to the train station and rode home just like ordinary folks. In the middle of a global war, President Franklin Roosevelt, when he was at Warms Springs, Ga., would often take two or three friends, drive up to the Pine Mountain area, pull over and have a picnic on the grass. He drove himself. There was no entourage of 20 armored limousines.

I’ve watched the transition from a republic to an imperial power. This imperial poison has spread even to the local level — mainly, I think, because we’ve allowed the politicians to pay themselves more than they would have ever dreamed of making in the private sector. They forget that they finagled their own pay raises and think anybody paid that much money must surely be important.

Well, the beauty of America is this: The country still belongs to us. It’s ours for the taking anytime enough of us can pry ourselves off the couch and become activists.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969 to 1971, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.