Barry & Ollie & Us

Despite all their differences, these two men are carriers of the same political disease, an epidemic of cynicism that has swept buffoons and vandals into office across the country.

"You can take that tape, and stick that tape up your motherfuckin' ass," says the man in the L.A. Raiders cap. Through a cloud of cheap liquor, he literally spits the words in my face. His left hand stabs an accusatory finger into my rib cage. His right, wielding a lit cigarette, punctuates his tirade with emphatic thrusts that bring the butt's orange glow uncomfortably close to my chin.

We're on a sidewalk in Washington, D.C.'s overwhelmingly black 8th Ward, just off Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue near Malcolm X Avenue. This ward voted almost unanimously for Marion Barry, the city's once and future mayor, in the September mayoral primary, virtually delivering the election. I'm the only white person in sight.

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Though he curses my tape recorder, the man wants to use it to send a message to the people who brought down Barry four years ago. "Y'all white people been stealing all your life.... Y'all spent millions of dollars to try to get this man." He's talking about Barry's fall in 1990, when the FBI, acting on reports that Barry was using drugs, supplied crack cocaine to Barry's girlfriend and then videotaped him smoking it in a hotel room. Four years later, after leaving office, serving six months in prison, finding God, and remarrying, Barry is back. On this October day, he's coasting to re-election with the overwhelming support of the city's black majority.

"He gonna be mayor," gloats the man in the Raiders cap, with another defiant poke.

I return to my car, happy to escape unharmed and still in possession of the offending machine.

I head for Alexandria, Va. It's just two miles away, as the crow flies. But to get there on foot, you'd have to scale a barbwire fence and swim the Potomac River. Nobody's built a bridge here because the two sides seem to have nothing in common. Don't hold your breath waiting for Alexandria to name a boulevard after Malcolm X. The city's main drag, the Jefferson Davis Highway, honors the president of the Confederacy.

On a street corner in Alexandria's shopping district, I run into Bob, a 26-year-old mortgage banker. Bob is standing outside a Banana Republic store and looks like he bought today's outfit there. He's got an elegant young woman on his arm. You won't catch Bob in a Raiders cap. Nor does my tape recorder faze him. Nothing fazes Bob. He's going to vote for Oliver North to replace Sen. Chuck Robb, and no complaint about North can deter him.

"Everybody tries to harp on the fact that he lied to Congress," scoffs Bob. "Well, Congress lies to us on a daily basis. Robb has done it. Everybody's done it. So actually it probably makes North more qualified to be a senator."

Despite the river of racial, economic, and ideological difference that divides them, these two men carry the same political disease: an epidemic of cynicism and rage that has overwhelmed the country and swept dozens of buffoons, liars, and vandals into public office. Its axioms are Orwellian: Ignorance is strength, treachery is loyalty, censure is honor, public service is disservice.

Symptoms of this disease abound. Hotheaded Californians elected Andrea Seastrand to the House, despite her ascription of local earthquakes, fires, and floods to divine retribution. Angry Ohioans sent to Congress Frank Cremeans, a man who promises to resist gay rights because he thinks a male professor was once "after me." Fed-up Georgians have voted to imprison for life, without possibility of parole or case-by-case sentencing, anyone convicted of two violent felonies.

Voters know politicians are lying but apparently no longer care. New Yorkers have replaced Gov. Mario Cuomo with a trivial state legislator who promised an absurd 25 percent tax cut. In Tennessee, D.C. lobbyist Fred Thompson shed his suits, donned blue jeans, and toured the countryside in a pickup truck to demand "congressional reform." Despite revelations that he had garaged his Lincoln Town Car and leased the truck just for the campaign, he won a U.S. Senate seat in a landslide.

Even worse than such nonchalance about political deception is the public's creeping lust for sheer political destruction. Thompson, for example, was a featured guest at a GOP Halloween party where activists made fun of the suicide of White House attorney Vince Foster. In Pensacola, Fla., voters responded to the murder of abortion doctor David Gunn by electing Joe Scarborough, an active defender of the murderer, to Congress.

Virtually everyone acknowledges that the national electorate has become contemptuous, cynical, and peevish. Journalists blame this surly mood on politicians' incompetence and dishonesty; politicians blame it on journalists' negativism. Nobody seems willing to finger the most important culprit: voters. After all, contemptuousness, cynicism, and peevishness are traits of character, in this case our national character. They're needlessly destructive responses to our disappointment with politicians' performance. The extent to which these traits controlled the 1994 elections suggests that something is deeply wrong, not just with our leaders, but with us.

Marion Barry and Oliver North epitomize the problem. Both have national constituencies and financial support. And although black voters in Virginia narrowly stopped whites from electing North to the U.S. Senate, he'll be back. He's already hinted at a race for Virginia's other Senate seat next year. And why stop there? North's aides are talking about controlling or even winning the 1996 GOP presidential nomination. "Presidential candidates would die to have the list of donors Ollie has," one adviser gloated to the Washington Post, referring to North's 250,000 hardcore supporters across the country.

Almost everyone feels that either North or Barry owes his success to an outbreak of madness. White conservatives boggle at blacks who condemn North but revere Barry. Black liberals marvel at whites who scorn Barry but venerate North. But this madness isn't a black problem or a white problem, a liberal problem or a conservative problem, any more than it's a quirk of Virginia or D.C. It's a sickness in our national soul.

Just another day at the artifice

The runaway printing of political lies has inflated the currency to a point at which one more lie means nothing. A big lie is no worse than a small one; a public lie no worse than a private one. Consider one exchange from the Virginia Senate race. Robb ran a television ad accusing North of "lying to Congress." North fired back with an ad suggesting that Robb "lived a lie" by cheating on his wife a decade ago. To viewers, it was a wash. A poll showed that slightly fewer people trusted Robb to tell the truth than North.

It's tempting to think that this sort of skepticism helps us get at the truth. But when skepticism engulfs everything, there is no truth. If all politicians are liars, then you can't trust a report by one politician that another is lying. In North's case, the most damning accusations come from his old buddies on the Reagan foreign policy team. Perversely, many voters dismiss those complaints because they distrust everybody in the Reagan White House. Same goes for news reports questioning North's veracity. As everyone knows, you can't trust the media.

The powerlessness of positive thinking

Cynicism is depressing. It's natural to suppose that the solution is simply to take a more positive attitude. But cynicism isn't just an absence of faith. It's an absence of judgment. Redemption, as preached by Barry's supporters, makes a virtue of the failure to judge. They routinely cite the biblical injunction against judging one's neighbor, insisting only God can judge Barry. Well, so much for democracy. To judge your elected official, you don't just have to walk a mile in his shoes. You have to walk it on water.

In this respect, Barry's partisans echo North's. They demand that white voters cut Barry the same slack they've accorded to North, Richard Nixon, and other corrupt white politicians. This isn't a plea for higher grace. It's a plea for lower standards.

Ancient history

Barry's election illustrates how forgiveness all too easily degenerates into forgetfulness. It erases every sin in a politician's life--i.e., his or her record. Barry's mayoral competitors tried to remind voters that during his 12-year reign, he handed out government jobs and contracts like candy, harbored a dozen aides who were indicted for crimes related to their jobs, and spent the city into the ground. But to no avail. Voters who forgave and forgot Barry's drug bust also forgot everything else.

North doesn't even pretend to seek forgiveness. He brushes off Iran-contra as "ancient history." Similarly, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole dismisses his own past criticism of North with the excuse, "That's history." It's a curious use of the word. Once upon a time--in case you've forgotten--"history" was something worth remembering, studying, and consulting as a guide to present-day deliberations. Now it's a synonym for "irrelevant."

The war against traditional values

"We are at war," Pastor Bob Melvin bellows to the hundreds of North faithful huddled in a high school auditorium in Fredericksburg, Va. "A war is being waged against traditional family values." Seated to the minister's left, Oliver North poses as the hero of that war.

Melvin reminds the audience how, in his testimony before Congress seven years earlier, North aroused "a sense of pride as he took the stand unashamedly and unapologetically...I watched him...tweak the liberal members of Congress and the liberal media, and they haven't forgiven him yet." The minister confesses that he yearns for North's election to the Senate, so that he can see "the look on the faces of those left-wing senators."

So much for traditional values. The traits applauded in this room are pride, shamelessness, delight in the pain of the enemy. Together, these add up to a negation of morality. The irony becomes clear when Melvin recalls the cliche that what matters isn't whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. Incredibly, Melvin brings up the adage only to attack it, thundering, "But this is not a game...and it matters a great deal in this case whether we win or lose."

And the outsiders shall inherit the Earth

If you think these are just the ramblings of a few religious wackos defending a now-defunct candidate, you're missing the point. The disdain for government that permeated that rally in Fredericksburg is bigger than North, bigger than religion.

In 1992, Ross Perot established the boneheaded maxim that a lifetime of serving oneself in business demonstrates leadership and humanitarianism, whereas a lifetime of serving the public in government demonstrates freeloading and corruption. Public enthusiasm for this nutty theory has enticed hundreds of well-heeled ignoramuses out of the woodwork, from Michael Huffington in California to Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. Six years after George Bush won the presidency by selling himself as the most experienced public servant ever to seek the job, his son won the governorship of Texas by boasting, "I proudly proclaim I've never held office."

North's emergence as a folk hero underscores this pathology. He's not just an outsider; he's an outlaw--and proud of it. His campaign's favorite slogan was that North was the only candidate who had "ever stood up to Congress before and won."

Fighting the powers that be

By comparison, Barry hardly seems dangerous. Yet moral collapse is a far more immediate threat in the environment he represents. In much of D.C., as in other cities, lawlessness and gunfire already rule the streets.

So many young people in Southeast D.C. have been arrested, jailed, or caught up in drugs that some voters regard Barry's moral collapse as an important asset in "relating" to youth. "Now he's an even better [role model]," one supporter told me, " 'cause he's made the mistake of using drugs."

This might be plausible if Barry had truly repented. But that's doubtful. During the campaign, he noted, with a nitpicking pride reminiscent of North, that he had been convicted only "of a misdemeanor," and that "I did not acknowledge guilt."

At bottom, Barry's campaign, like North's, amounts to a fit of rage against the system. "I voted for Barry to give the powers that be the finger," one lawyer told the Washington Post.

But Barry's voters have missed an important distinction. What's collapsing in the inner city, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, isn't just an old economic order; it's an old moral order as well. Barry's election, like North's insurrection, is a gesture of defiance not just to the powers that be, but also, in some measure, to civilization. It's an apt exclamation point to an election year that was long on change but short on progress.

William Saletan is writing a book on the politics of abortion.

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