This is roughly 180 degrees from
the truth. Making laws and making hot dogs are messy procedures, yes, but
tedious ones. All you have to do is attend a few hearings or inspect a few
assembly lines to get the idea. Something that starts out living and breathing
is transformed through various mechanical actions into matter that is limp,
lifeless, and, quite often, indigestible. Theres a reason why they refer to the
grind of legislative business.
But luckily there is such a thing as political theater to reawaken our interest in public business and to focus our attention on the issues. Take a recent cause celebre featuring Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr. (who, perhaps not coincidentally, is gearing up a campaign for the U.S. Senate).
As anybody who watches a cable
news network knows, Ford was conspicuously involved in a fracas last week on the
House floor. It came after a freshly elected member of the House, Republican
Jean Schmidt of Ohio, delivered a message from an unidentified Marine of
her acquaintance to Rep. John Murtha, a venerable Democrat and himself a
former decorated member of the Corps. The message? that cowards cut and run,
Marines never do."
Thats what Murtha, the ranking
member of the House Defense subcommittee, got for suggesting the time had come
to consider a staged withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. A commotion
ensued, in the course of which several Democrats shouted out demands for an
apology, and Ford, often accused by his adversaries on the left of crossing
over to the other side of the political aisle, did so quite literally and
All reports had Ford shouting
and storming over to the Republican side, and The Washington Post would
quote Ford as screaming, Say Murtha's
Name! Various accounts went on to indicate that Ford was led back to his side of the aisle (gently taken by the arm, as one report had it) by Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin.
Only the readers of The Christian Science Monitor got the follow-up account, which detailed how Ford, after leaving the floor, was approached in the House lobby moments later by Republican congressman Patrick McHenry of North Carolina. One might suppose that fisticuffs were imminent. But no both men broke into big smiles and high-fived each other.
As the Monitor goes on
explain, the two congressman, though in opposing parties and presumably
differing on both Iraq and the Murtha matter, had been teammates in a football
game two nights before, one matching House members against Capitol police. (The
game was a fund-raising affair to benefit the families of two officers who were
slain inside the Capitol in 1998 by a gun-wielding invader.)
Debating the withdrawal issue
with another Republican colleague, Arizonas
J.D. Hayworth, on MSNBCs Hardball
this week, Ford, who prides himself on his good relations with GOP members, was
once again conciliatory.
I was amongst a group, the first group of Democrats to pledge my support for the resolution authorizing the use of force, the Memphis congressman pointed out, going on to say, Im as committed as you are, J.D., to winning. I voted for this effort in Iraq, I voted for the money, Ive been to Iraq several times like you, and you and I are friends.
chivalrous was the praise conferred by Ford on Hayworth for his sponsorship of a
resolution (defeated 403-3) calling for immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces
for Iraq. Though many of his Democratic colleagues accused Hayworth of having
distorted Murthas position in an effort -- successful, as it turned out -- to
force the issue, Ford credited him for bringing about the first time in more
than three years that weve had an open, honest and essential debate about
Which was the real Harold Ford the belligerent combatant of the House floor or the ingratiating colleague on MSNBC? Answer: Both or neither (the choice depending largely on the politics of the beholder). All successful politicians know when to hold up and when to fold up, and, for better and for worse, a sense of theater would seem to be a useful civic attribute, both for the public actor himself and for his audience.
Corrections: Mark White, not Mark Wright, is the former legislative candidate who will seek the Republican nomination for Fords 9th District congressional seat; Though former U.S. attorney Veronica Coleman proudly owns up to a Democratic background, she notes correctly that the office of Juvenile Court Judge, which she seeks, is formally non-partisan, involving no party primaries; GOP activist Bill Wood has expressed interest in the seat now held by Memphis school board member Michael Hooks Jr., not the county commission seat occupied by Michael Hooks Sr.
Nation Books, 290 pp. (paper), $15.95
Zioncheck, which plays off the apocryphal-seeming but utterly real history of a half-mad onetime Seattle congressman who pushed all the envelopes before killing himself in 1936, is the account of a 2001 city-council campaign managed by Campbell after he got fired from his job at The Stranger, a Seattle alternative weekly that he went to after (voluntarily) leaving the Flyer in the late 90s.
That may not sound like material for a minor little masterpiece, and I surely didnt expect one when, after some unconscionable procrastinating, I finally opened it up for a read. But the book funny, sad, serious, and illuminating - works uncannily well on several levels, including one or two that I didnt know existed. All I can say is that now I understand that wicked but (it would seem) vulnerable gleam that played in Campbells eyes during the few years that he occupied a cubicle next to mine at the Flyer. He sees things.
Add that to some world-class doggedness and in every sense of the adjective offbeat creativity. Having discovered some years ago that there was a town in Alabama called Phil Campbell, the Ohio-born writer rounded up a score of similarly named people through the United States and declared an annual Phil Campbell Festival there. For all I know, it still goes on.
Campbell understands that life is a kaleidoscope, that all the trivia of our private lives somehow connects, metaphorically and actually, to the large macro-universe and that, in a profoundly democratic sense, every part of it is equal to every other part. Even as our interest is being whetted concerning the issues of that faraway city-council election which focused on the candidates different ideas for an urban transit system! we are also seduced into caring about Campbells simultaneous power struggles in the group house he lives in. Even when 9/11 occurs in mid-campaign, we see that catastrophic event and the principals long-distance reaction to it as a part of the general cacophony. The symphony, rather.
Grant, the Twin Towers are gone, Campbell tells his candidate, who responds, Well go watch the news in a minute. But right now we need to pick up some materials from a few volunteers.
In other words, everything is life-or-death all the time for Campbell, for his candidate, for the apparently disturbed housemate who tinkers ominously with a Glock pistol, and for the prominent Seattle personages, living and dead, whose destinies keep cropping in. Most notable of all is the case of the late crazed congressman Marion Zioncheck himself, whose compelling personal history tragic, madcap, and intensely relevant -- is interspersed throughout the narrative in the manner of those historical anecdotes Hemingway used as chapter-dividers in his short-story volumes.
The book will give you goose bumps. Its a page-turner. And, oh, for those who knew Campbell and those who didnt, there are some intriguing Memphis memories here.