Saturday, September 12, 2009

Public Servants and Public Behavior

In the last week, I've read two stories about legislators that I had never heard of before. One of these stories surprised me, the other did not.

One story involved California assemblyman Mike Duvall, who was unknowingly being recorded as he spoke to another legislator about his affair with a lobbyist, including graphic and lurid details about their "relationship". (The married lawmaker also told of another affair he was having--this other woman apparently knew about the lobbyist, though the lobbyist was unaware of her). Other interesting aspects of this story:

A) Duvall had previously received a 100 rating from a conservative group for his "pro-family" voting record

B) He did end up resigning as result of the recording being made public, but he now maintains that he was lying about what he said on the recording

C Perhaps most relevantly, the lobbyist in question allegedly worked for an energy company (relevant because Duvall served on an committee overseeing energy legislation).

The second story is that of South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson, who is now infamous for his "You lie!" outburst during President Obama's speech to Congress.

I don't think I'm alone in being more surprised by the Wilson story, primarily because I think it is safe to say that it is a less outrageous story. The Duvall story is in line with the type of template one sees in many a fictional story, but the reason these tropes work so well in fiction is because there is so much basis in reality--when no less than three sitting governors become embroiled in absurdly melodramatic sex scandals in less than five years (see McGreevey, Spitzer, and Sanford), when the bedroom (sorry, Oval Office) habits of a former President become a matter of public knowledge, when a major political party loses its majority status largely because of improper dealings with lobbyists... the threshold for public shock (and perhaps even outrage) is significantly lowered. Yet the novelty of someone breaching the decorum of a presidential address as if it were a 1966 electric Dylan show? That's a new one.

Yet for me, it's more than the sheer novelty of the disruption that I find surprising. I'm not sure if my perception of the country's political landscape has been unduly affected by sensationalistic media reports, but largely because of the frequency of stories like the Duvall incident, I've come to realize that I regard politicians as typically reprobate, concerned more with securing a personal lifestyle of luxury and license, as opposed to actually investing in public policy. I realize there is nothing novel about my cynicism, but this last week as given me new insight into the alternatives to this state of the union.

Would we rather have a government comprised of pragmatism and exterior propriety, a government in which politicians succeed in hiding their hypocrisies and their lack of true dedication to cause, or would we rather have a government in which fervent and passionate adherents to various causes pursued their agendas irrespective of standards of propriety, or perhaps even civility? Realizing that logicians would call this a false dilemma, I still ask which would be better for society? Which would be better for public confidence in governmental institutions? And are these two things necessarily the same? And finally, if most people would answer the question a certain way, would there be anyone willing to stand up and yell "You lie!"?


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