Let us mark the passing of our country’s most symbolically important socio-political holiday—the night when hordes of little beggars descend upon us with their implicit threats and explicit demands. They come dressed as absurd impostors of superheroes claiming unlikely powers to fight evil, as vampires sucking up the sweetmeats of our household budgets, as zombies—like the walking dead of bureaucracy—as ghosts—like the deceased spirits of civic responsibility—and as bums.
They menace us with vague perils. Hand over the goodies or we could suffer some danger or indignity. We might get an IRS audit of a window soaping. A federal Home Affordable Refinance Program paperwork T.P.ing of our residence. An eminent domain tipping over of the outhouse.
Halloween is more emblematic of the American political process than Election Day will ever be.
To wring all that can be wrung from metaphor, note what our elected and appointed officials are not dressed as.
No contemporary public servant, mooching on the grounds of pretended hazard, goes door-to-door in the character of a Great Statesman. No politico of our day makes the least attempt to dress him or herself up as a Franklin or a Hamilton, let alone a Washington or a Jefferson, or even an FDR, Ike, or Reagan.
American politics has always been a cadger’s game, but once there were leviathans among the leeches—and not just the people whose profiles appear on our loose change.
Giants strode the Senate floor. From the 1820s to the 1850s, the upper house was dominated by Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John Calhoun.
They were not necessarily beneficent titans. Calhoun supported state nullification of federal laws and gave a speech to Congress titled “Slavery as a Positive Good.” Clay engineered the morally indefensible Missouri Compromise. And Daniel Webster, a great opponent of slavery, supported the vile Compromise of 1850, Fugitive Slave Act and all. John Greenleaf Whittier railed against Webster in “Ichabod,” perhaps the most scathing poem in the English language.
But, together, Webster, Clay, and Calhoun delayed the Civil War for 40 years. And, given the close-run thing the war was when it did get fought, what if the North hadn’t had four decades to grow in power, population, and industrial progress? The Marine Band would be playing “Dixie” at the president’s every public appearance.
Who is it, in our Senate since 1974, who by sheer power of oratory, has delayed our wars in the Middle East until we were ready to win them? (And, for that matter, where is our poet who could damn any of them for it?)
Can we imagine Stephen Vincent Benet writing The Devil and Barbara Boxer? The smug and smirky California junior senator with an honorary doctor of laws degree from Mills College comes to the defense of a poor farmer who sold his soul to the devil in return for a few years of relative prosperity. She faces a jury of famous villains and a judge from the Salem witch trials. And the poor farmer goes to the hell of the 2014 Farm Bill.
We, in olden days, had towering kooks and colossal villains. Not Ron Paul and Anthony Weiner.
Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, in a frenzy of abolitionism, gave a speech describing South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler’s support for slavery in sexual terms so extreme they’d embarrass a patron of Redtube.
Two days later Butler’s Nephew, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks, walked into the Senate Chamber and beat Sumner senseless with a gold-headed cane. Sumner never fully recovered.
A House motion to expel Brooks failed. Brooks resigned his seat but was immediately returned by his district in a special election.
We had great heroes too, at every level of government. Davy Crockett served in the U.S. House of Representatives. Show me an ex-congressman nowadays who died while defending the Alamo instead of while lobbying for the American Petroleum Institute.
Such a man as Patrick Henry accepted office as a mere state legislator. He was not known for saying, “Give me liberty, or give me a big campaign contribution.”
Chief Justice John Marshall, in Marbury v. Madison, courageously asserted the judicial branch’s duty to apply constitutional law to all legislative and executive acts. Chief Justice John Roberts, in National Federation of Independent Businesses v. Sebelius, did too, sort of, as long as you define “penalty” as “tax” and don’t look up either word in the dictionary until after the 2012 elections.
Secretary of State William Seward negotiated the Alaska Purchase, getting 663,300 resource-rich square miles away from the Russians at 2 cents an acre. Secretary of State John Kerry can’t get Donetsk away from the Russians.
Ambassador to France Robert Livingston made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, doubling the size of the United States for 4 cents an acre.
In 2014 the ambassador to France is Jane D. Hartley, former Carter administration associate assistant to the president in the White House Office of Public Liaison. What bargain did Ambassador Hartley make? You guessed correctly: She bundled $500,000 in contributions to Obama’s presidential campaign.
President John Quincy Adams’s son Charles Francis Adams was minister to the Court of St. James during the Civil War and, almost single-handedly, kept Great Britain from recognizing the Confederacy. President John F. Kennedy’s son JFK Jr. founded George.
When the political spongers of our era come looking for hand-outs their costumes are those of pecksniff tax assessors, self-important county sewer commissioners, owners of Volvos with too many advocacy stickers, loud-mouth school board meeting attendees, subscribers to The Nation, feckless Tea Party blog ranters, and minor ineffective Ivy League-educated community organizers.
Perhaps it’s just an ugly style of political jack-o-lantern carving that the country’s going through. Maybe the politicians of the future will find it beneath them to roam about in the electoral glooming as witches and goblins of democracy. It is to be hoped that someday they will be satisfied by getting candy for being good.
As President Abraham Lincoln didn’t say in his First Inaugural Address, “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. Trick or treat.”