Forgetting His Oath

Washington Times  3.25.97
Balint Vazsonyi

"The role of government is to change the behavior of the people." Thus we learned how, in the view of Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL, son of Reverend Jesse Jackson), the relationship between ourselves and our elected leaders should play out. Mr. Jackson's statement was made on March 16, during NBC's "Meet the Press" - Tim Russert, host and moderator. Of course "government" does not imply elected leaders only. As a matter of practice, a statement such as this includes all manner of appointed officials: judges, cabinet officers, under secretaries, section heads - all the way down to junior employees of regulatory agencies.

Mr. Jackson ought to be lauded. These days it happens rarely, if ever, that a politician faces the camera squarely and discloses his innermost personal agenda. The Congressman obviously is conscious of the family tradition he is carrying on as a professional activist on behalf of a deeply-felt cause. Honesty is as good a foundation as there is.

"The role of government is to change the behavior of the people." This is plain talk indeed. It means that, in Mr. Jackson's view, whatever the persuasion of the government, it will have to address the behavior of the people. The people's vote is thus restricted. They can choose only between the types of behavioral change their next government will mandate, but change they must.

Most importantly, the statement postulates that the people's behavior needs to change. In other words, their present behavior is unsatisfactory. If the statement is to hold true for all times, one must conclude that the behavior of the people is always unsatisfactory. Otherwise the statement would read, "The role of government is to change the behavior of the people, until..."

Mr. Jackson's ideology looks back upon rich traditions. Increasingly since the middle of the 19th century, there have been demands for the people's behavior to change. Some committed individuals managed to gain control of entire countries (actually, several countries at a time) with the goal of changing the behavior of the people once and for all. Alas, something always went wrong. Usually, it was the armed forces of the United States who interfered, which would lead one to the natural conclusion that the behavior of the American military needs changing more urgently than anyone else's.

But Representative Jackson ought to be commended for his forthrightness. Would that our nation had a politician on the other side of this argument with an equally active penchant for plain talk. Such a person could articulate an alternative vision of government, one that places elective and appointed officials in service of the people. There is a great deal of literature upon which to draw. Americans, especially late in the 18th century, wrote volumes about just such a vision.

Imagine what a great debate this could be. On one side, those who advocate that "the role of government is to change the behavior of the people." (Presumably, they know exactly how the people's behavior ought to be changed.) On the other side, those who believe that people should be free to pursue their happiness within the framework of a stable, fundamental system of laws. The two sides would then compare not only theorem, but the fate of nations in which one or the other was practiced.

What a debate this could be! What a debate this could have been during 1996! Imagine: President Bill Clinton could have taken one side - Mr. Jackson's, for argument's sake - and Senator Bob Dole the other, as proposed by men like Jefferson, Washington, Madison two centuries ago. A pity it was not to be. Perhaps in 1998? 2000?!

In any event, we must be grateful to Mr. Jackson. There is, of course, the somewhat troubling matter of his oath of office. We should assume that, along with fellow members of the United States House of Representatives, he recited the words: "I do solemnly swear that I will...to the best of my Ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Said Constitution knows nothing about "changing the behavior of the people," since it actually begins with the words: "We the People..." Subsequent elective officials, like Abraham Lincoln, too, made frequent mention of "government by the people."

We trust that Representative Jackson will find a way to reconcile his passionately-held beliefs with his public oath, which may act as a temporary impediment in their pursuit. We must also trust that a champion will yet come forward to represent the opposite view.

Of course, in my own most intimate moments, I dream of a television host-moderator- journalist who, like those of old, would side with the United States of America and politely remind guests when they appear to forget their oath of office.