A couple of weeks ago while driving in Montana and listening to a local radio call-in show, I heard something about corrupt values in politics honestly expressed. Honesty in politics is always refreshing, in part, because it is so rare, even when it reveals a like corruption in the values of the citizenry. Voters are fond of forgetting that corrupt politicians embody the values of those who elect them to office. The two radio hosts were reviewing a previous show, which had been about Montana's Sen. Conrad Burns, who will be the Republican candidate seeking a fourth term in November. Should he be re-elected?
Burns has been called one of the 13 most corrupt members of Congress by two political watchdog groups and one of the five worst senators by Time magazine, which termed him "serially offensive" for such loose-brained statements as calling Arabs "ragheads." To say that Burns is racially challenged is to give bigotry a bad name and is a politeness he has not earned. Though he has received the highest (100 percent or A) ratings from PACs like the National Right to Life Committee, National Rifle Association, American Land Rights Association and the Christian Coalition, Burns is currently up to the bottom line of his loose brain in alligators and allegations. They involve money received from, and Senate votes on behalf of, Jack Abramoff, whose honest plea of guilty to corruption of public officials and subsequent cooperation in exchange for a reduced sentence should eventually bring some welcome refreshment to Congress' tired, old, corrupt body.
The more of his old lawmaker friends he fingers, the more refreshing it will eventually be for Congress, and, depending on the details of the deal he cut with prosecutors, the less time Abramoff spends in jail the more refreshing it will be for him. It is a refreshing arrangement for all, except for an as-yet-undetermined number of corrupt congressmen and their staffs.
The radio hosts reported that people who called in ranged between two camps on Burns. One held that if he really is as corrupt, inept and serially offensive as he has been portrayed, then he should not be re-elected. This view is ethically refreshing and should be a no-brainer to endorse.
The second camp, however, questioned whether it was in Montana's best interests to lose a man of such seniority, connection and influence in Washington. Burns, after all, has been in the Senate since 1989 and is powerful, influential and experienced. (He originally ran on a term-limits platform, promising to step down after two terms, but the experience of power helped him have a change of heart and mind on this matter.)
He is a member of the powerful Senate Committee on Appropriations and is the chairman of two important sub-committees, one of which gives him jurisdiction over all federal lands, the National Park Service and the budget for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Burns may be one of the five worst senators in America, but he brings the pork home to Montana. The second camp holds that what he contributes to the state because of his position in Washington is more important than serial offensiveness, making the all-star teams in both worst and most corrupt congressmen categories and allegations of serious legal, ethical and moral breaches of the public trust. Abramoff gave more money to Burns than he gave to any other congressman, though Burns hasn't publicly said yet, "Th-th-that's all, folks."
The second camp isn't maintaining that the allegations against Burns are without foundation, nor does it hold with Burns' personal public position that his problems are caused by "the Eastern liberal press." It simply holds that the ends justify the means: If it's good for Montana, it's good for the country. Such in-your-face candor is, in its own way, as refreshing as it is loose-brained, short-sighted and ethically disturbing. At least it is not hiding in denial, nor playing smoke and mirrors with reality. It is accepting the reality and responsibility that Burns embodies its values.
How refreshing for a constituency to accept responsibility for the true—as opposed to the denied and smoked-and-mirrored—values, politics and practices of its elected officials. This has great and largely untapped potential to alter the American political system.
All those who voted for the current national, state and local politicians who administer and govern the country are responsible for those governments and their policies and actions, for those elected officials represent the people and embody their values.
It's not always pretty or comfortable, but it is refreshing when people accept responsibility for their own government. Gandhi, as he did so often, said it best: "We get the government we deserve. When we improve, the government is also bound to improve."