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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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Anybody who knows me knows that I have a visceral aversion to cliques, and cliquishness in general. Can't stand them. They drive me crazy. Friends have surmised to me that perhaps my hatred of cliques comes from the fact that I come from an immigrant family, of an ethnic group of only 4 million people in the entire world. I guess that makes sense. It's not easy to fit in when the most identifiable aspect of your personality is shared by only 0.006 percent of the world population.

Whatever the reason, cliques anger me in a very irrational, emotional way. But in certain instances, they also worry me deeply. Nowhere more so than in politics, where "ruling cliques" has become a synonym for abuses of power and totalitarianism. Increasingly, our political system is hardening into a cabal of professional politicians -- a "political class" or clique, access to which is very difficult. Being outside of the clique makes it almost impossible to involve yourself to any true extent in the political process and transforms our public servants from citizen rulers into a deceptive aristocracy.

Perhaps we are more sensitive to it in Chicago, where the political structure is tightly interlocked and moves along not only familial but neighborhood lines. The greatest example, of course, is the Daley family. Richard J. Daley himself got where he was because of associations he had with connected children of politicians in his youth. But it is not only Daley: even the Latino and African-American communities have political cliques of family, business associates and childhood friends who crowd out competition in the political realm and hold onto power. Most insidious, and as with any subculture, so-called reformers and progressives have their own little clique, over which they are quite jealous.

This is the cause of the rhetoric thrown around about "experience" in the political process, as if previous government experience is the only prerequisite to serving. This claim is thrown around fairly often now in campaign rhetoric and is very dangerous. The great thing about the history of our country is that it is littered with political novices, reformers angry about the system they saw around them, who decided to jump into the political realm and try to change things. The citizen-reformer is the greatest archetype in our country's history, and increasingly as we look for polished, professional politicians with unblemished personal and professional records we are decimating the ability of outsiders to truly come in and change the system.

Senator John Kerry's recent announcement of John Edwards as his running mate drew criticisms from the Bush campaign that he would be a bad vice president simply because he isn't ready to be president -- he hasn't even served out a full term in the Senate, and before that he had no experience in government at all.

Of course, dutiful Democrats scowled and suggested that that very inexperience was what made him appealing. His youthful optimism and energy is what's needed, they said. These were the same Democrats who hurled the same thing at Jack Ryan when he was still in the race for Senate, and at J. Danforth Quayle when he faced Lloyd Bentsen for V.P. in 1988 presidential race.

This isn't just partisanship. It is cliquishness, it is the same high school mentality that dislikes the outsider, the "poseur," because he or she hasn't paid their dues, and therefore is of lesser ability. Of course, this is a complete falsehood, and it's deleterious to democracy. We should yearn for people to enter government who have grand -- but pragmatic -- ideas, not people who have won incremental victories but have obeyed the party line like lap dogs.

The press prefers these types, too, asking why somebody with no experience thinks they have the right to govern. Why? Because they are an American citizen with energy, passion, and dedication to their country, that's why. Not because they're some polished nerd who has been planning their career since childhood, who have taken great pains to make friends in the right places and play nice with the other kiddies.

Leave that to actors and figure skaters. Politics is serious.

Legislative ability? Dwight Eisenhower was one of the most capable legislative leaders in the presidency's history. He was able to get more of his legislation through a generally hostile Congress than any president until Bill Clinton in 1993-4. His political experience? Bupkus.

Statesmanship? Woodrow Wilson was president of Princeton University until 1910, when he was elected governor of a "second tier" state, New Jersey. After less than two years in that office, he began campaigning for president. He founded the League of Nations, which could have succeeded in stopping the Second World War had Senator Cabot Lodge not blocked U.S. entry into it.

Of course, there is that guy named George Washington we've all heard so much about.

And on the lower levels of government, people with little or no experience litter our nation's history, often as our greatest leaders. Some of the greatest reformers, whether you agree with them or not, are private citizens who entered public service late in life because they felt things needed to change. Before H. Ross Perot, who had ever heard the phrase "campaign finance reform"? Who before Huey "Kingfish" Long ever promised a "chicken in every pot"?

There are two fine women running for the U.S. House of Representatives right now who have no government experience, but who have the passion, dedication, and sound ideas to make this nation a better place: Christine Cegelis and Melissa Bean. Their two opponents, Henry Hyde and Phil Crane, have oodles of government experience. So when does experience matter? When it best serves your taste? There is a principle involved here, beyond your taste.

This dislike and distrust of the outsider is a matter of taste; it is a group mentality better suited to children. But this is a world of adults, and we must put away childish things. Children talk about taste -- adults talk about ideas, and it is great ideas and great passion that we should seek in our public servants.

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Pete / July 14, 2004 12:09 PM

Considering he was "elected" President despite his political experience being limited to two terms as Governor of Texas, you'd think Bush would be the last guy in the world to be harping on Edwards' supposed inexperience.

john / July 14, 2004 12:24 PM

The Republicans did not take control of the congress until 1995 (1994 election). Are you saying that that democratic congress was hostile to clinton?
Also, did you find out anything about teaching?

Ramsin / July 14, 2004 9:36 PM

Couldn't get the info in time...

Although lots of Clinton's major programs were introduced early in his presidency, much of it did not reach the passing stage until the Republicans took control of both houses--before that, key Republicans killed or stalled bill after bill in committees especially in the senate; I could have expressed that better by saying 1993-96

Peter / July 15, 2004 10:51 AM

Eisenhower's political experience was gained thru his dealings in the Army, where he served his entire life, and especially WWII. He had to hold together a coalition of nations that were rarely on the same page. That is not bubkis - that takes skill.

The successful reformers that we have seen throughout our history have usually been people that have experience running and guiding large organizations. Edwards has none of that experience and that is why people are harping about his lack of experience.

Ramsin / July 15, 2004 10:57 AM

Close, Pete, but no cigar. I don't buy it. Wes Clark was called "inexperienced,"; H. Ross Perot, who managed an enormous business organization, was called "inexperienced"; Andy McKenna, candidate for Senate, who runs a very large paper company, Schwarz, was called inexperienced; in fact, business and non-profit leaders, who often have themselves built huge organizations if not simply assumed control of them, are called "inexperienced."

Peter / July 15, 2004 5:07 PM

Man, you are just pissed that people have legitimate doubts about whether a one-term senator and former trial lawyer is cut out for such high office at this point in time. Why would someone appoint the mail room boy to be the CEO?

Pete / July 16, 2004 9:22 AM

Because he hasn't yet savored the sweet taste of corruption?

Kris / July 16, 2004 3:18 PM

Peter, I wouldn't mind so much if I thought the doubts were really "legitimate." But coming from a man who had almost exactly the same amount of time in public office under his belt as Edwards when he decided he was qualified to be president, not just VP, it just smacks of the usual self-serving rhetoric.


About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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