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Take Three / Three Views of the Southland |

A Welcome Dose of Reality

January 30, 1998|SHAWN HUBLER

Back in college, there was this boring guy, a Young Republican type, whose life's ambition was to be a congressman. He had this thing: Every day, when he went to catch the bus to campus, he'd cut through the Catholic church.

Finally, my sister cornered him and demanded an explanation. Why not go straight to the bus? Someday, he confided merrily, he wanted to tell his constituents that there hadn't been a day of his life that hadn't started with Mass.

Years later, in the suburb where we live, a local plumber ran for a City Council seat. He was a very decent man, well liked in town, but when he started getting the inevitable crank calls from gadflies he got inordinately scared.

He asked for police protection, but the local constabulary told him he was taking it all too seriously. So he took a steak knife from his kitchen, stabbed his own hand and told the cops that he'd been attacked. Eventually he was found out and, though to us the incident made him substantially more interesting almost overnight, he resigned for good from public life.

For a long time, years really, those two incidents have sprung to mind any time someone mentions politics to me. A colleague will mention spin or polls or party platforms, and the most tangible thoughts I'll be able to muster will be the images of the plumber and the Young Republican.

Supposedly, journalists are entranced with this watchdog-of-government business, but you heard it here first: Most things political are eminently dull. Only on rare occasions will something human peek through the boring curtain of phony baloney, and only then will you feel the urge to sit up and care.


This week, after five years of mostly dull doings in the White House, the public sat up and cared. Not in the political style, of puffed-up demonstrations and rhetoric, but in the human style, of interested talk.

Here in the heart of suburbia, people who yawned at the politics of health insurance or welfare reform a few months ago suddenly found themselves eagerly conversant on the politics of President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, his "special" intern. Were they lying? Would it matter? Was she a doe in headlights or the latest predator to enter the time-honored game of let's-get-the-bigshot-to-drop-his-pants?

It wasn't so much that the people I ran into were morally outraged or calling for anyone's resignation. They were intrigued, that was all. For once, the vagaries of Washington had spawned something that had outrun the spinning and polling and phony baloney. It wasn't nice, but for once, politics had yielded something human. And humanity is not eminently dull.

Much has been said in recent years about the apathy of the American electorate. How prosperity has made us fat and listless. How we've turned away from political discourse, sedated ourselves with tabloid celebrity trials and the like.

But look closer. What's the one thing celebrities and politicians have in common? A public image. And what's the one thing you can find in a courtroom, but not a modern political campaign? Private humanity.

Ours is a time in which would-be congressmen spend millions in an attempt to be something beyond human, or, in the alternate, to prevent the people from finding out how human they actually are. In California, we have a Democratic gubernatorial candidate who is so obsessed with image that he doesn't even appear at some of his own press conferences--just sends his TV commercials. In Los Angeles, we have a mayor who rarely conducts the public's business in public because he's not good at making speeches, and his handlers seem to assume the city can't be inspired by someone who isn't fast-talking and glib.

Our elections feature photo ops instead of living, breathing people. Our parties groom candidates whose public personas are as blow-dried as their heads. The O.J. Simpson trial, if nothing else, presented human weakness and human ambivalence (not to mention Marcia Clark's all-too-human hair).

There is a reason real things are compelling, and it's not just prurience. It is that people will do almost anything for a glimpse of authenticity. The problem with politicking at every level is that the politicians have gotten too good at it. The public's business no longer seems to be conducted either by or for real people, with real strengths and weaknesses, real lives and needs.

If it were, real people would be riveted, unable not to pay attention; some might even be interested enough to get involved. But until we get real in the political arena, we're going to be stuck with political leaders who are not only less than perfect, but, in the worst cases, so troubled that they are actually drawn to a job that places a premium on shucking and jiving and fast-track fakery.

It would be nice if the fallout from the Clinton drama could be a better acceptance of the fact that, whether or not we know it, we're electing human beings. I would like the constituents of that old college acquaintance--now a terribly upright Republican U.S. senator--to understand what made him predictable, even way back when. I would like our town's humbled plumber to feel he can be part of a system in which there are second chances for flawed but interesting guys.

Shawn Hubler's e-mail address is

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