Monday, July 7, 2008

The Government We Deserve

Back after a busy 4th of July weekend during which former Sen. Jesse Helms died, eliciting some interesting reactions. (And at least one Mel Brooks reference.) The New Republic shared some illuminating stories about Helms that make me wonder how it is that some people become U.S. Senators in the first place. (I'd like everyone to notice that I am avoiding making jokes about North Carolina, as I know some lovely people who hail from the Tarheel state.) Anyway, if you didn't click on the TNR link, here's the sweetest plum:
Soon after the Senate vote on the Confederate flag insignia, Sen. Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.) ran into [African-American Illinois Senator Carol] Mosely-Braun in a Capitol elevator. Helms turned to his friend, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah), and said, "Watch me make her cry. I'm going to make her cry. I'm going to sing 'Dixie' until she cries." He then proceeded to sing the song about "the good life" during slavery to Mosely-Braun.
So, since we live in a country where Jesse Helms can become an Important Senator, maybe we should finally accept that we've failed the Founders miserably and bury the notion that our Senate is a solemn, dignified place. Or something. (Ok, so it's not that bad. I sincerely believe that there are many smart, dedicated people in Washington who are trying to do the right thing, and the Senate, in spite of its many flaws, is still a serious place. Most of the time.) But let's look at an interesting new idea: electing a comedian to the Senate - one who might be less of a joke than the incumbent. Enter Michael Kinsley:
Americans say they want to be represented by "real people" and not by "professional politicians." But with their votes they reward professionalism and drain the reality from politics. Real people haven't spent their lives plotting a political career, and therefore real people may have said things from time to time that an aspiring politician would not. Departures from the official script are called gaffes. This election year, the script has been more important than ever. Despite the Iraq war, despite the sinking economy, despite the price of gasoline, we have frittered away our politics in a round robin of gaffes, mock indignation, demands for apology and more gaffes.
Truth. Frank Rich said pretty much the same thing in his column yesterday. Anyway, more from Kinsley:
This year a professional jokester, Al Franken (D), is challenging a professional politician, incumbent Norm Coleman (R), for a Senate seat in Minnesota. Not every joke Franken wrote or told over a third of a century in the joke business was hilarious, okay? Minnesota voters will have to decide whether their dislike of professional politicians trumps their enjoyment in taking umbrage, or vice versa. Coleman is a man of no interest, a run-of-the-mill professional politician who started out as a standard issue long-haired student rebel leader on Long Island in the 1960s and surfed the zeitgeist until now. Today he is a standard-issue pro-war tax-cut Republican. Franken, by contrast, needs no introduction and from Day One would be one of the most interesting people in the Senate. "Interesting," of course, isn't the most important quality in a senator. "Honest," "smart" and (for my taste) "liberal" are more important. But "interesting" would be nice.
Luckily, Franken also happens to be smart and (as far as I know) honest. People who aren't familiar with his work often claim that he's the left-wing version of Ann Coulter, but there are a few crucial differences:

1. He's not evil.
2. He's not a habitual liar.
3. His books are funny.

I've read "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them," which is Franken's (admittedly partisan) critique of conservative media, and it's a very funny book. It also makes lots of good points and is based on accurate research. You don't have to agree with everything Franken says - and I don't always agree with him - but Norm Coleman underestimates him at his own peril. When he announced his candidacy for the Senate several months ago, Franken posted a video to his website describing why he believes in liberal politics. The transcript is here, and I encourage you to read it if you're interested in his motivations for seeking office (it's convincing and well-argued). If you pay attention to what he's saying, the issues he's running on, and the way he's conducted his campaign, you'll notice that - for once - he's not joking.

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