by Justice William W. Bedsworth
It was a billboard next to US 15 in Maryland. In big blue letters, trimmed in red, it shouted, “Timmerman.” Beneath, in letters of equally gaudy patriotism, but slightly smaller size, it solemnly proclaimed, “Conservative. Republican. American.” Beneath that, in letters of equal size, but considerably more mystery, it promised, “Beer. Wine. Cocktails.”
I had only been in Maryland a half-hour. I had just cruised across the state line from Gettysburg on my way to D.C., and I knew only two things about Mr. Timmerman: (1) He was running for Congress and (2) he had a six-point platform that consisted mostly of things I liked.
My wife insisted he had just neglected to remove the previous advertiser’s selling points from the bottom of the billboard, but I wasn’t sure. “Beer, wine, and cocktails” seemed to me a pretty effective campaign slogan. If he could find a way to deliver on that promise, I felt Mr. Timmerman was presidential timber.
Of course, I wasn’t registered to vote in Maryland, so the efficacy of Mr. Timmerman’s platform and advertising were pretty much academic. But it did occur to me that after 236 years, our country’s political acumen has finally bottomed out. At a time when we are putting robots on Mars and curing my best friends of cancer, our political system resembles nothing more than a fraternity plebiscite run by Bluto, Otter, and Flounder—a system in which a promise of beer, wine, and cocktails does not seem significantly more implausible than the others we hear.
Political advertising has proved you can build a sub-basement under the nadir. Our Supreme Court has detected human rights and a yearning to breathe free in corporate hearts previously thought to be metaphorical,(1) so now whatever gossamer restraints there were upon political advertising have been cast aside.
National candidates are free to obfuscate and prevaricate with impunity, explaining, “I didn’t say that! Some nameless, faceless—but human, and therefore possessed of free speech rights—corporate entity that isn’t me said that. In fact, they spent $30 million dollars saying that on every television station in America. But it wasn’t me.”
The blue states—so-called because they are controlled by political Crips—and the red states—Bloods territory—are spared political advertising because the electoral college(2) makes them irrelevant. Just as eight members of our Supreme Court are pretty much window dressing for the vote of Anthony Kennedy, forty of our fifty states will have no more say in the election of our president this year than Latvia. So neither party wastes its time advertising there.
California being one of those states, I am spared the litany of horribles conjured up by the Democrats and Republicans and ascribed—almost always baselessly—to their opponents.(3) As long as I stay here, the march toward Armageddon trumpeted by both parties remains background noise—Antietam cannon fire heard from Hagerstown.
But there are a group of states—Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Virginia, North Carolina, Fredonia, Transylvestite, East Moravia, Hogwarts Academy, and a couple others I can’t remember—that have not yet decided whether to wear red or blue.
I found myself in a couple of these battleground states on my vacation and the ubiquitous political ads taught me that one presidential candidate is an alien from the planet Cygnus 24B who wants to eat those of us who own firearms and sell the rest of us into slavery. The other has five felony convictions, hates puppies, and is not in prison only because he owns the federal prison system and has a more powerful religion than his opponent, which enables him to leap tall buildings at a single bound.
If the American people believed more than half of what they’re told about these two men, they’d be showing up at political rallies with pitchforks and torches. The crowds of adoring supporters would be replaced by process servers and egg-throwers.
But they don’t. Most seem to believe exactly half—either the half served up by Fox News or the half doled out by MSNBC. Their votes having been locked in, it appears our next president will be chosen by a small band of voters in a small band of states who will somehow remain “undecided” until they walk into the voting booth and take out their coin.
Meanwhile, Congress has folded up its tent and gone home. In the words of the Associated Press, “The most partisan, least productive Congress in memory has skipped out of Washington so lawmakers can make their case for voters to re-elect them.”
This happened on September 22.
Yes, September. Apparently they couldn’t trust the PACs and Super-PACs who have been tossing Molotovs at the other side since the summer solstice to complete their surrogate calumnies without personal supervision.
Having taken care of all the important legislation like designating National Pie-Eating Week and receiving the report of the sub-committee on farm subsidies for rutabagas and candy corn, they turned out the lights, locked the door, and rushed home to put on their American flag ties and go tell lies to the Kiwanis.
This upsets me.
You may have noticed.
It upsets me so much I have to stop talking about it or my blood pressure will reach the level where my sphygmomanometer automatically cancels my life insurance and my iPod starts playing “Nearer My God to Thee.”(4)
Suffice it to say whoever our next president is, he’ll be surrounded by more mental and moral dwarves than Snow White on her worst day.
So, for the sake of my health, I am going to stop thinking about what harm this will do to the country I love—thereby protecting the heart valve transplant I received 21 years ago from dangerously high blood pressure levels—and address myself instead to my new-found appreciation for non-congressional elected officials.
This is, of course, not entirely new-found, since I myself am a non-congressional elected official and—as you have doubtless remarked in the past—I have a tremendous capacity for appreciating me.
But I have only recently begun comparing our council members and supervisors and assemblypersons and state senators and the like to the clown-car we call Congress. And the contrast between the folks who govern us from our state capitals and county seats and hometowns, and the folks who govern us from their constituents’ private jets and the television studios where their commercials are produced, is pretty striking.
I watch my city council on television every other Tuesday night. Well, I don’t always watch them. A lot of what they do bores me to tears. Probably bores them just as much.
But it’s important. Even the simplest zoning dispute is important to the people involved in it. It’s done on a smaller scale than what the hammer-wielders(5) in Washington do, but it’s important. So they do it.
They listen to the parties, swallow hard, and cast their votes. People get angry and call them names. They suck it up and move on to the next item on the agenda.
They come to every meeting prepared and they don’t spout platitudes about God, Motherhood, and The American Way. They don’t get involved in kabuki politics or ideological food-fights. And, mirabile dictu, they actually make decisions.
Like the rest of us, they periodically take off on flights of self-importance and self-indulgence, but I’m willing to forgive them that. I’m so grateful for the rest of what I’ve described, I’d forgive them an ax murder or two.
Compare this to the members of the House of Representatives, who, by actual survey, spend 40% of their time campaigning; 38% arguing over rules and threatening filibusters; 12% approving National Pie-Eating Week; 27% figuring out what to say that nameless, faceless corporate entities have not already said on their behalf; 1% voting on federal judges and analyzing important legislation; 18% flying back and forth between D.C. and their districts; and 42% eating and sleeping.(6)
I don’t know as I write this who will win the presidential election or any of the senatorial or congressional tiffs. And what concerns me is that I’m losing my ability to care. On a national level, we’re not so much electing representatives as choosing cast members for a political version of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
Three members of the Board of Supervisors who actually do something will have more impact on my life than all 535 members of Congress whose contribution to the republic consists of waving the flag and shouting at the gridlock. And they will do it without the tub-thumping, chest-beating, say-anything histrionics that have become part and parcel of our national electoral pageant.
So take a moment to call or write a councilperson, supervisor, assemblyperson, or some other local office-holder this week. Watching the way the “big boys” conduct themselves should have made you appreciate the way the so-called “lesser” officials carry out their tasks.
They may not provide beer, wine, and cocktails. But at least they provide a service.
(1) If not completely chimerical.
(2) Insert your own Animal House joke here. It’s my understanding the electoral college is in fact presided over by Dean Wormer.
(3) Instead, I am subjected to commercials produced by big pharmaceutical companies offering me wonder drugs that will help me overcome sexual dysfunction and cheat death with only a dozen or so side effects. These are interspersed with commercials produced by lawyers offering to help me sue the makers of the wonder drugs if any of the side effects they warned me about come to pass—or I suffer sexual dysfunction or death—after using Big Pharma’s wonder drugs.
(4) Welcome to the 21st Century, Buck Rogers; now please let me see your phone so I can examine your cookies and figure out what ads to show you when you look up sphygmomanometer on Google.
(5) Will Rogers once said that the words “Congress is in session” had about the same terrifying effect on him as the words, “The baby has a hammer.”
(6) Yeah, I know that’s more than 100%. If the things they say about us don’t add up, why should the things I say about them add up?
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at email@example.com.