At last, there is a funny flap in the presidential race. Everyone is trying to call everyone else an "elitist." The funny part is that they all are correct. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain are all elitists, and, of course, in their hearts they see the rest of us as peasants.
After all, they are themselves, and we are not. We don’t live in Washington or fly around in private jets or have crowds cheering on cue when we come into the room. Nobody pays us $50,000 or $100,000 for a speech. We are not surrounded by staffers and suck-ups. More importantly, none of us is going to be president next year.
I think in Imperial Washington it is impossible to avoid becoming an elitist. Remember, the Constitution gives 100 percent of the power to only 546 people — 435 members of the House, 100 senators, nine Supreme Court justices, one president and one vice president. Everybody else either works for these people or is delegated power by these people.
Consequently, they are showered with attention by the thousands of lobbyists, the press, the bureaucrats, visiting foreign dignitaries, even the tourists. Congress, to borrow a biblical phrase, is from whom all blessings flow in Washington in terms of jobs and money. Appointments flow from the president. Only the Supreme Court justices are on the sidelines, so to speak, though from time to time they get cases where the outcomes can benefit or harm the big-money crowd.
Washington didn’t used to be the way it is today. A friend of mine tells a story about a Kansas farmer who won a seat in Congress in the days before air conditioning and high salaries. He asked the farmer how he liked being in Congress.
"It’s wonderful," the farmer said. "Why, Don, this job pays $40,000 a year in salary alone."
Washington is, in effect, a company town, and the company is the federal government. The big shots all live together, party together, name-drop together, social-climb together and scratch each other’s backs. There are rivalries, of course, like there always are in courts and empires. People are extraordinarily sensitive to status and to status symbols. Big egos abound. No matter how folksy they may play it for the dumb voters, they all expect people to defer to them because of their position.
While I like the geography of Washington, the museums and monuments, I can’t stand the social climate. It would be hard to find a place anywhere on Earth where more people are more out of touch with reality than Washington, D.C.
So don’t expect whichever candidate who wins to suddenly go to bat for the middle class, much less the lower class. "Straight talk" is, like "fair and balanced," simply a marketing slogan. What the candidates are saying now is unlikely to become manifest in the actions of the winner. Americans should have become accustomed to candidates saying one thing on the campaign stump and doing the opposite once they are in office. Presidential candidates have been doing it since at least Franklin Roosevelt.
I expect to be disappointed no matter who wins, though not disillusioned, since I scrapped all of those illusions some years ago. It’s not that candidates don’t have good intentions. I believe most of them do. The problem is that when they get to Washington, it’s like falling down Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole or entering Narnia through a closet. They ran for office in one world; they serve in office in an entirely different world. Since Washington is self-sufficient for politicians (they can raise their next campaign kitty right there), it’s a rare man or woman who doesn’t begin to see the hometown folks as strangers.
Americans should remember that if it’s a messiah or salvation they seek, neither is to be found in politics or in government.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.