Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Be Careful What You Wish For

By Mitchell

You may recall that Willie Stark, the Huey Long-esque central figure in All the King’s Men, originally comes to power through a literal collapse of the infrastructure. Stark, who winds up as one of the truly sinister political figures in American literature, starts out as an earnest crusader, thrust into the limelight when a tragic school accident confirms his earlier charges of corruption in the bidding process used to construct the building. As one character puts it, “I am punished for accepting iniquity and voting against an honest man!”

You don’t see scenes like that much in American politics today, and it isn’t only because we don’t have novelists like Robert Penn Warren writing the dialogue. It’s because we live in an era in which the idea of a political white knight, a populist hero of the people, is a concept totally foreign to the average American.

Now, at this point in All the King’s Men Stark is, in fact, a relatively honest man. (This is before he goes on to become a poster child for the “power corrupts” school of political science. For more information look under “Moses, Robert.”) And therein lies the difference. Stark himself, in one of the novel’s most memorable lines, says, “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud.”

Again, you’d probably be hard-pressed to find a politician today (or anyone else, for that matter, outside of an evangelical pulpit) who would put it in quite precisely those terms. But Robert Penn Warren’s words lie at the heart of the debate that is to come, and the way in which our times have changed.

A friend of mine from out-of-town asked me if the outrage had started yet over the 35W bridge collapse. Certainly, if you’re interested in pointing fingers there’s enough blame to go around. You’ve got, just for starters, inspection records that might have sent up red flags, pork-barrel spending that might have taken needed funds away from supporting the infrastructure, a constitutional amendment that was supposed to take care of funding for roads (and might – several years down the line) and two new sports stadiums going up. (Wonder where the money for those is coming from, hmm?)

I told him that while I supposed the outrage would be there eventually, frankly people were still a little too stunned to get going on it. Not to worry though, I assured him – it will happen soon enough. (In fact, there are already arguments going on over the design and speed of the bridge replacement, not to mention the likelihood of a gas tax increase to pay for everything.)

So it’s easy to imagine the blame game to come. (Because, after all, we do have to have someone to blame for it, don’t we? The human heart is far more comfortable with that scenario. Something goes wrong, it has to be someone’s fault, right?) The question, however, is who will benefit from it? Who’s going to be the white knight? And I don’t think that’s a crass question to ask, when you’re talking about someone the public will turn to.

The days of Willie Stark are gone now, or fading quickly. If you look at the literature, the movies, the TV shows of the 50s and 60s, government leaders are generally the good guys. If there are monsters to fight, the military takes them on. If there are gangsters on the loose, the feds are there to protect us. Aliens, mind-control, different types of sinister plots, might even bring the president into the mix.

Hard to believe that would happen now. The general perception of politicians today is not a particularly positive one. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that any politician is going to be able to ride to the top on a wave of outrage over the bridge disaster. Between the earmarking, the pork-barreling, the vote trading, and the general level of corruption and politics-as-usual that most people associate with politics, today’s leaders are probably more likely to be blamed for causing the collapse (or at least the conditions that precipitated it) than looked to take care of the problem. That won’t stop them from trying, from talking a good game about it, but as the saying goes, talk is cheap.

Thomas Sowell had a brilliant column last week regarding the subject of tax increases to pay for infrastructure. He doesn’t think much of it. There’s plenty of money to pay for infrastructure, he said;

The real problem is that the political incentives are to spend the taxpayers’ money on things that will enhance politicians’ chances of getting reelected.

There may be enough money available to maintain bridges and other infrastructure but that same money can have a bigger political payoff if spent building something new instead of maintaining and repairing existing structures.

So where is one to turn to find the white knight? Not the politicians. They’re all guilty to one extent or another, most people would say. Or, as Stark puts it, “conceived in sin and born in corruption.”

(We probably ought to be suspicious of politicians who promise to take care of the infrastructure, anyway. They have ways of turning out to be something other than we’d expected, even as they fulfill their campaign pledges. He made the trains run on time, anyone?)

In truth, the politician of the Willie Stark era has been replaced, in most cases, by the trial lawyer. (See Edwards, John.) No matter what type of calamity occurs today, if you look closely enough you’ll probably find a lawyer somewhere in the aftermath, already working up his first briefs. It’s not that we look to the lawyers to remedy the situation. No, what we ask from them is simpler, more straightforward: we want justice, retribution, financial restitution. We look to them to assign the blame, to hand out the punishment, to hold the guilty parties up to ridicule.

It’s almost as if we’ve given up on the idea of changing things, and are content to simply react instead. We can’t prevent bad things from happening; we can only punish those responsible. The trial lawyers have punished a lot of people over the years, and they’ve certainly made a lot of money for the victims of disaster and their families (and a great deal of money for themselves, in the bargain). They’ve also been responsible for adding to the cost of even the most basic services, of skyrocketing costs (in the medical field, for example), and in attaining a level of trust just about as low as that of politicians. The only difference is that the lawyers might at least be able to get you a few bucks; anytime you talk to a politician it usually winds up costing you money.

There is one other possibility, of course. Oprah. She’s always got a sympathetic ear, unless you do her wrong. (See Frey, James.) Her audience is huge, heart-on-the-sleeve-wearing, inclined to believe the best about you and the worst about them. Maybe she can’t redress the wrongs you’ve suffered, but at least she’ll give you a hug and a shoulder to cry on. And there’s always the chance you’ll get a few minutes of fame, and maybe a book or movie deal. How good is that – a chance at the money, and you don’t even have to go through the trial lawyers to get it. Remember in Three Days of the Condor how Robert Redford goes to the New York Times to expose our corrupt government? Forget that; the Times is so passé. Oprah is the crusading journalist of our time.

I don’t mean for this to sound too cynical, although it undoubtedly is the product of a cynical age. It’s just that the times have in fact changed. Not necessarily for the better, or the worse; Willie Stark was hardly a bargain, as is usually the case once someone gets that first taste of power and finds he likes it. It’s just that we don’t look to the crooked politicians anymore, but to the ambulance chasers.

So when we demand answers, when we call on someone to do something, when we ask, “Where’s the outrage?” we’d better be careful what we ask for. We might just wind up with Willie Stark. Or John Edwards. Or even Oprah. Which one is worse? You be the judge.


  1. Can getting your face in front of the cameras after a disaster give a failing career a second chance?

    I thinking of Rudy Giuliani after 9/11 and Sheriff Rich Stanek after the bridge collapse a lot these days.

    Excellent post.

  2. An interesting point. Not many people remember that about Rudy - after his marriage fiasco, he was kind of passe until 9/11. I wonder if he's the exception that proves the rule.

    I mean, can you really think of anyone around here that could vault into contention for the Senate or Governorship based on cleaning things up in government? The City of Minneapolis could certainly use it (although I'm not blaming Rybeck for the bridge, just a lot of other things) but who would take his place?


  3. When the Ravenel went up in Charleston a few years ago, the city raised sales taxes 8.33% as part of a match with the State Infrastructure Bank to build the new bridge over the Cooper, a bridge I love (but after being forced to miss the Cooper River Bridge Run XXX because of illness just hours before the gun, I wanted to take my own life, just like my voice teacher's character in an opera written by the man who brought the Festival of Two Worlds to Charleston).

    Our governor has vetoed numerous pet projects from state budgets, only to see them overridden by arrogant legislators. He knows pork is a no-no, and knows money is better when it is spent prudently, such as the Ravenel.

    A few years ago, I proposed (and discussed it on the radio) the idea that new bridges (especially) should have naming rights sold to offset some of the costs. Advertising billboards should also be permitted on the bridge, with the state receiving a cut (50%) of the proceeds of the advertising revenues while the sign firm receiving the other 50%. That would create a stream of revenue that would help offset road costs.

    Imagine driving on the Target Bridge on 35W as a way to raise funds for the bridge, and the 20-year contract also allows advertising billboards that create revenue annually to pay for the bridge.

    And one more rule: All advertising revenues and naming rights fees for any roadway are good exclusively for that roadway or bridge, and cannot be used for ANYTHING else.

  4. Do you suppose that "didie" with that meaning is appearing on a blog here for the first time.

    Great post, Mitchell!

  5. The WaPo had a comment last week that the 35W bridge was so unremarkable that it didn't even have a name.

    Actually virtually none of our bridges have names; just numbers or locations. Bobby may be on to something here.

    I see the Sieben law firm has petitioned the court to be allowed access to the bridge so that they can begin their investigations. I wonder if they have a client yet?

    I find it interesting that in all the articles critical of the state for allowing the bridge to fall into a state of disrepair, it is never mentioned that the bridge collapsed while it was in the midst of a repair project.

    Whether it was the right repair project remains to be seen. It may have been the cause of the collapse. That remains to be seen, too.

  6. Mitchell: I have not lived in Minneapolis for several years so take this opinion for what it's worth from a resident across the river. :-)

    I can't think of anyone in Minneapolis who would run on the platform of "cleaning up corruption" I don't recall thinking the government of Minneapolis was corrupt. I've always thought of them as being more consumed with ideology and keeping themselves alive politically then worried about infrastructure (I see the same problem in St. Paul)

    I'd vote for YOU-if I lived in Minneapolis. Maybe it's time for you to throw your hat into the political ring again? ;-)

  7. Cathy,you're right about Minneapolis not being particularly known as a corrupt city, although some of the city council representatives have had their legal troubles. I think "incompetent" is perhaps a better way to describe a city that is so poorly managed that it runs out of money to run its libraries, cuts police to balance the budget,designates itself a "Sanctuary City" and can't even afford to restore the clock in City Hall tower. On the other hand, and I say this as neither a GOP or DFL, I think this is what you get from a one-party city where the opposition party is the Greens. Whatever your preference, a two-party system is far healthier. Actually, I think the time might be ripe for a non-ideological business type to throw his (or her) hat in the ring on a "competence" platform, but they'd have to have deep pockets for what would essentially be a self-funded campaign.

    Ray, I think initially there was some talk about the construction on the bridge - in fact, almost everyone who knew about it seemed to immediately jump to the conclusion that this must have played a factor. That doesn't seem to be the opinion of the professional engineers (although they are looking into the weight and intensity of the jackhammering, I think), and so perhaps that's the reason it's dropped off the radar. I myself would not be shocked to find that there was some relationship, however tenuous. I also would not be surprised to see Sieben come up with a client, even though they might not have gone in there with one.

    Bobby, as Ray suggested, that's a very interesting idea about the naming rights. You're right - they do it with stadiums, why not with other parts of the infrastructure? I'd be interested to see this get more of a hearing and find out the reaction.


  8. Ray,

    By the way, you are correct - to my knowledge, this is the first time that the word "didie" has been used in this blog. Oddly enough, I almost used it in my first post on this book - in fact, I thought I had - but alas, no.

    I leave it to my blog colleagues to see if they can come up with another post that includes it!


  9. Mitchell,

    What about "Minnie the Moocher"? You know, "Didie, didie, didie ho."


  10. If you use blogsearch.com, you will see 51 examples of it, most of them in a foreign language or as a name. I think there might one use as nickname for "diaper."

    In recent history, Minnesota has been remarkably free of organized corruption. There are always cases of people with access to the cash drawers dipping into the till.

    There was a time around the turn of the century where the government was nationally known to be just as corrupt as Tammany Hall in New York City or the machine in Philadelphia. It was prominently featured in Lincoln Steffens' "The Shame of the Cities" with its own chapter.

    Today, the city's biggest problem is that it is extremely poorly managed under a "weak mayor" form of government.

    Prior to the early 1980's, literally, the only power that the Mayor of Minneapolis had was the appointment of the Police Chief and the heads of the Housing and Redevelopment Authority and the Human Relations Commission.

    Consequently, during mayoral campaigns the biggest lawn sign pounding brigades were composed of policemen. And there were lots of factions in the department. At one time in the 80s there were something like a half dozen ex-police chiefs on the department's payroll. They were given the rank of Inspector and various duties, but probably not in direct command of officers.

    The Council appointed a City Coordinator who was responsible for the day to day management of the city's operations.

    Every wonder why there are so many stop signs and stop lights in Minneapolis? That's how the aldermen got re-elected. They decided where they should go.

    Over time, even they realized that that was foolish and eventually turned that decision over to the traffic engineer (the same guy who can't time the lights on Hiawatha).

    And during Don Fraser's mayorality, there was a City Charter change to give the Mayor a bit more power including attendance at Council meetings and now sharing the appointment of the Police Chief.

    The best result of that was to take the politics out of the Police Department.

    But still the Council pretty much determines the agenda and the budget for the city.

    The Mayor's position is still very weak and accordingly no really strong and capable individual would want to run for that office.

    A couple of Councillors (as they are now called) have been prosecuted and convicted of bribery charges by the Federal government. But their corruption was personal and did not involve other employees of the city.

    The Council, finding much of the city to be well run by its staff, and its poverty problems beyonds its capability to solve, seems to spend most of its time dealing with the big issues like war, global warming, wi-fi for the masses, and diversity.

    We are now well into the 21st century. I suspect Minneapolis government will stay that way for a while.

  11. Ray,

    I think you're right. Although I'm not generally a fan of centralized power, I think a city the size of Minneapolis does need a strong mayor form of government - this place tends to be so factionalized anyway, it would be beneficial to have one person that the entire city could look at as their own representative.

    I mean, who was the last mayor of Minneapolis who was really a player, someone you could see running for higher office, ala Coleman - Hubert? (Who, of course, also helped clean city government up.) I know Don Fraser was a really big wheel, but that was prior to his being mayor.

    And I think you're right - I don't see it changing any time soon.



Remember: Think Before Commenting.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...