Private Citizens, Public Service
My first haircut in America would have taken place on a Wednesday in February of 1959. It didn't. There were two men talking inside the little barber shop in Tallahassee, Florida, and one of them swung around as I entered. "It's Wednesday. We're closed, sonny boy," he grunted. I left, deeply hurt. You see, I had already looked back upon a past of some ten years as a concert artist. I was not anyone's "sonny boy."
Some months later, I needed a travel document. An immigrant's green card did not correspond to the Europeans' idea of a passport, so the good folks in Tallahassee arranged a meeting with the district's Congressman, and to Washington I went. The office door, once I found it, proclaimed the honorable Bob Sykes. "Bob?" I said to myself - "a mere youth in the hallowed halls of Congress?"
Once inside, a venerable man in his sixties rose from behind the desk. "Hi, I'm Bob," he said, stretching out a hand. That's how I learned that it was all right for me to be "sonny boy" in America.
And that's how I will always think about members of Congress. I was a good many years away from becoming a citizen who could vote, but it didn't matter. I hardly spoke enough English to explain my quandary, a highly unusual one at that. It didn't matter. In a few minutes, "Bob" was on the phone to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and, together, these two American public servants figured out how this Hungarian refugee could have a piece of paper upon which a pedantic Swiss consular official could imprint a visa.
1959 seems a century away. In 1997, we take bets as to who can find worse things to say, or more embarrassing incidents to relate about public officials. For sure, a President who can put nothing but memory lapses between himself and indictments doesn't help. Shadows of the House Post Office, recurring disregard for the truth by certain Members of Congress - all these are depressing facts of life in our time.
Yet in recent months, I have had the privilege (and use of the word is intentional) of meeting both Members and their staffs with some regularity. Many staffers I encountered were young, gifted, enormously hard-working, and devoted to their country. Others were older, seasoned professionals, impressive and competent. I am sure there is the usual variation with regard to talent, ethics, proficiency, but the general distaste that surrounds "The Hill" seems more like a fad than the result of considered opinion.
As for the Members themselves, I have tried to imagine the demands made on them by colleagues, constituents, lobbyists, donors, PR persons, and all the friends and acquaintances of colleagues, constituents, lobbyists, donors and PR persons. Given that I am none of the above, I am amazed that some find the time - physical and mental - to listen to me and my accent on a topic that must seem remote as they watch the floor on monitors and listen for the voting bell. My topic is some aspect or other of the American Founding, a topic more distant from today's legislative agendas than King George III must have appeared to settlers on the Frontier.
That is not as it should be, but it is so nonetheless. And because it is so, those Members who want something done about the growing gulf between ourselves and what this country was meant to be deserve special attention.
The late great Hatton W. Sumners, long-time chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, wrote - just about the time I met Congressman "Bob" in 1959 - that our democracy would have to be guided back to its proper foundations by private citizens. I wonder if he might agree that private citizens sometimes need to be in public office to experience first-hand the workings of bureaucratic government, so that they comprehend even more the incomparable blessings of self-government.
Not long ago, I made the acquaintance of two such private citizens who had come to work in the Congress of the United States. Rod Grams, a freshman senator from Minnesota, grew up on a dairy farm and went to school in Minnesota and Montana. His life experience has been a combination of broadcasting and private enterprise. Senator Grams' manner is surprisingly devoid of self-importance. He speaks softly, but carries a huge commitment to the American ideal.
California wine grower George Radanovich, whether or not he had read Hatton Sumners' writings, spent much of his freshman term in the House thinking about ways to revitalize the institutions of the private citizen. There is much talk about reducing the size of government, but little discussion about the appropriate function of government and alternatives to its present intrusive role in peoples' lives. Congressman Radanovich, returned comfortably for a second term, has published a number of ideas. Readers might be interested to know that some of our lawmakers continue to think as citizens, even after they had taken the oath of office.
In fact, it is the very oath of office that appears to be their guide.