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"
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
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
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
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