Why Do People Go To Washington?

I listened to part of McCain’s speech last night.  What I want to comment on was the recurring motif, in his and other campaign speeches, that few people go to Washington to serve the people.  This reminds me of an airplane conversation, much to the contrary, that I had with a first-term congressman.

During the summer of 1997, I was flying from Denver to SF.  The man sitting next to me commented on something I was reading, and we started talking.  He was the (now late) Walter H. Capps, then a former UCSB professor of Religious Studies and anti-war activist, who, at the age of 63, was on his way home from his first session in Congress as a Democrat representing Santa Barbara.  He died a few months after our conversation of a heart attack he had on a flight from California to Washington.  His wife has filled that seat since his death.

We had a wide-ranging conversation, part of which touched directly on this issue of why people run for office.   Capps said that the continual fund-raising necessitated by our electoral system is so burdensome and unpleasant that no one seeking personal advantage would want to stay in public office for long.  Instead, he said, many of his colleagues were in Washington because they sincerely sought to make a difference and serve the people.  If they didn’t, he claimed, they would soon move to another arena where they could more easily serve their own interests without the burdens of public office.

One more thing worth noting: he said that it was harder being a university department chair than being a member of Congress.  He said that no Congressional vote had ever kept him awake at night the way faculty personnel decisions had. 

So yes, things may have changed since 1997.  But on behalf of the Walter Capps’ in Congress and other public positions, I resent the continual repetition of the charge that people in Washington are not there to serve the people.  Some may not be, but not everyone.

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