People sometimes ask me if I want to run for office someday. It's a natural question for someone who spends most of his waking hours reading about politics, writing about politics, and teaching about politics. So picture the looks of surprise when I answer that I would rather boil in a vat of Sen. Robert Byrd's hair pomade than see my name on a ballot.
It was not always so. When I was a teenager in the late 1960s, I yearned to be…Richard Nixon. To an awkward kid with a bulging bookbag, the sight of cheering crowds at Nixon rallies made a politician's life look awfully attractive: Here was one career where a nerd could get standing ovations.
Now, 28 years after pinning on my first Nixon button, I'm still a Republican, a political junkie, and a nerd. But having spent much of that time in the company of politicians, I'm now convinced that I don't want to be one. Sure, it might be fun to debate on the Senate floor or go on the Brinkley show and kid Sam Donaldson about his toupee. The catch, I've learned, is that these activities account for only a tiny part of a politician's time. The rest of it stinks.
Life may be a banquet, but political life is fast food. The size of modern government means that politicians have to cope with frenzied daily schedules. They are constantly rushing from meeting to hearing to markup to floor debate and back to meeting again, seldom spending enough time on a single activity to learn anything from it. Amid the rush, they find it hard to squeeze in the little things, such as reading, study, and thought. It's no wonder that when a television interviewer asked Rep. (now Sen.) Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to find Bosnia on a globe, he couldn't do it. Busy lawmakers don't have time for picky details.
One such detail is the actual text of legislation. In Washington, D.C., and many state capitals, the best you can say is that some of the lawmakers read some of the bills some of the time. The rest rely on staff-written summaries and word-of-mouth descriptions from colleagues and lobbyists. They often don't know what they're doing, and then they can't remember why they did it. Accordingly, one of the literary genres of the political world is the "vote justification," a memo in which staffers supply legislators with rationales for votes they have already cast.
Call me naive, but I'd hate to vote on bills I'd never had a chance to read. I'd feel as dirty and irresponsible as if I'd graded a term paper without looking past the cover sheet.
I'd also hate to perpetrate the deception known as political writing. Impressed with the "personal" response to the letter you sent your senator? In all likelihood, the senator didn't read it, much less write it: A recent college graduate did the work and affixed the senator's signature with a laser printer. Enjoy the governor's perceptive op-ed article in the local paper? Same story. Maybe the governor edited a draft, but the real author was some munchkin you never heard of.
If I held office, I'd try to do as much of my own writing as possible, but as a practical matter, the staff would have to do most of it. I've spent years warning my students about the evils of plagiarism, preaching that they should never put their names on other people's work. What would I tell a former student who saw me signing an article that one of my staffers had written? On an intellectual level, one could justify it as "routine staff work"–but on a gut level, it would still feel like cheating.
Another dilemma would arise out of my appointment book, because I would not want to meet with the people who'd want to meet with me. People usually seek out a politician because they want something for themselves, and it's typically something they shouldn't get, such as a tax break or a pork-barrel project. But they can usually make their pleas sound plausible–even heart-wrenching. Picture telling a sad-eyed 80-year-old lady: "Ma'am, we must cut spending, so I can't support additional funding for a senior citizens' center in your home town." Saying no is hardly a delight.
Neither is saying yes, at least if you remember where the money comes from. Every time politicians support new government spending, they are telling the butcher, the baker, and the janitor: "Hand over your hard-earned cash, and we will choose what to do with it. If you fail to pay up, people with badges will take away your property or throw you in prison." Perhaps it's a character flaw, but I would dislike practicing coercion on my fellow citizens, even for the sake of some hi gher good.
Of course, I've been assuming that I could win an election in the first place, which is highly doubtful. Running for office takes a lot of money; and since I'm not rich, I'd have to ask for it. Yuck. I can't stand to sell raffle tickets to my friends, much less badger rich strangers to give me thousands of dollars.
Even if I did scrounge up the necessary funds, my positions would alienate large voting blocs, and my rallies would serve as magnets for nasty protests. Take, for instance, the highly emotional issue of laboratory testing of animals. I'm for it, big time. If scientists must sacrifice a thousand pigs to develop a surgical procedure that will save a single human life, that's OK with me. Upon hearing me say such things, animal-rights wackos would shout me down with cries of "murderer!" and tie-dyed moms would lean down to their small children, and say, "He's the bad man who wants to kill Babe."
Likewise, I favor privatizing Social Security and Medicare. So when the animal-rights folks got hoarse, the greedy geezers would start yelling, and the tied-dyed moms would lean down again and say, "The bad man wants to kill Grandma, too."
Rushing, faking, begging, and making small children cry–that's not my idea of healthy living. I do not choose to run.
John J. Pitney Jr. is an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.