Throwing Junkballs to the Snake Oil Salesman
Throwing Junkballs to the Snake Oil Salesman
By Mark W. Bradley
If Dick Cheney is the sour face of the Republican Party (let's face it, the guy looks like he starts each day with a self-mortifying smoothie made from antique clock springs, carbolic acid and Zoo Doo), and George Bush is its blank stare (a cerebral garage sale in progress, there), then Sacramento area Congressman Dan Lungren is nothing less than its boyish, blue-eyed smile. A former state attorney general under Republican Governor Pete Wilson, Lungren is as genuinely charming as Arnold Schwarzenegger is effortlessly abrasive.
So when a friend contacts popular internet commentator Mark Drolette and me, informing us that the Congressman is hosting a "Town Hall Meeting" in the city of Elk Grove (a few miles south of Sacramento), we decide to attend, not having a clue as to what sort of atmospherics to expect. The two of us arrive about 7:00 P.M., sign in at a table outside the hall, and enter just as the meeting is getting underway.
Lungren begins the meeting with a twenty minute dog-and-pony show (actually, it feels more like forty minutes), replete with charts and graphs, purporting to illustrate the dire and immediate need for a drastic overhaul of the Social Security system. His presentation is peppered with glib rhetorical questions, the most adroit of which goes something like this: "Now many of you out there are undoubtedly asking yourselves 'Why would President Bush choose this moment to address a political problem previous presidents have, for decades, shied away from? Won't he be out of office long before the situation becomes critical?' Well, knowing him personally as I do, I believe that to answer that question, one need look no further than the president's extraordinary political courage." Bravo, Danny Boy. Bravissimo.
This lesson in pseudo-economics is so full of statistical and semantic inaccuracies, I fear my friend, Monsieur Drolette (whose grasp of arcane economic nuance vastly eclipses my own), is about to go apoplectic in the seat next to me. You see, the poor fellow suffers from an all-too-rare medical condition known as "prevaricational-anaphylaxis", which translates in lay terms as "an extreme allergy to bald-face lies." Fortunately, given the predictably high risk of a severe outbreak at any Republican-sponsored event, I've taken the precaution of bringing along a syringe of thorazine. (Much to my relief, Lungren concludes this portion of his presentation before an emergency injection is necessary.)
The Congressman then proceeds to cover a smorgasbord of other topics, after which he throws the meeting open to questions. By then, Drolette is noticeably calmer, and the two of us are in serious danger of descending into narcolepsy. Hard days at work, I suppose. (Wait! What am I saying? Mark is a state worker and I'm a teacher... He spends his workdays sharpening pencils and hatching dastardly plots to rip off innocent corporations, while I am furiously twiddling my thumbs in a diabolical plot to advance the cause of world terrorism. Come to think of it, no wonder we're tired!)
As a result of our uncharacteristic fatigue, neither one of us has the slightest intention of asking anything about anything. But after listening to Mr. Lungren's eloquent tribute to the "political courage" of President Bush, I, for one, am fighting back an almost irresistible urge to hurl. By the time the congressman finishes his sales pitch, I've grabbed Drolette's pen out of his hand, and am chicken-scratching the outline of a question on the back of a flier I picked up out in the lobby. For the next solid hour, I hold my hand aloft, steadily and patiently, attending closely to the ebb and flow of the ongoing discussion, all the while wearing a beatific smile that seems to whisper gently to the congressman, "Go ahead, call on me. I'm harmless, really I am."
Oh sure, there are a number of well-placed shills scattered around the room, and Lungren resorts to calling on them whenever the argument becomes a bit too contentious for his liking. But nearly everyone else he calls on is, to one degree or another, wary of his message, and highly critical of the GOP privatization plan. Finally, one of Lungren's staffers announces that there will be time for only one or two more questions, as it is rapidly approaching the 9:00 P.M. cutoff time. That's when (miracle of miracles) the congressman decides to call on me.
In the time it takes me to stand up, I experience the distinct sensation I'm being extruded through a wormhole in the time-space continuum, part of me retaining my adult shape, the other part transformed into the less-than-competent Little League hurler I once was. In my mind's eye, the catcher throws me the ball, and I look skyward, offering a silent prayer to the baseball gods. "Ple-e-e-ase don't let me screw up this time..."
With only a modest (but not insignificant) amount of fear, I don my most inscrutable game-face, ascend the pitcher's mound, and place my right foot on the rubber.
(Disclaimer: The following are not exact quotes, but rather my best attempt to recreate the "Q and A." The congressman's staff shot video tape of the event, and I would invite them to provide me with a copy, so I could correct and amend the wording of the exchange.)
"My name is Mark Bradley, and I'm a Sacramento schoolteacher."
Shouts from the stands, "Good for you" and "Thanks for doing what you do."
"Congressman Lungren," I begin, "as far back as I can recall, Social Security has been referred to as the 'third rail' of American politics."
Lungren nods and offers verbal agreement.
"Now, if I understand you correctly, what I hear you saying is that George W. Bush chose this particular moment in history to address this problem because of his outstanding political courage, is that right?"
"That's correct," he replies with a grin, tapping the end of his bat on home plate. I grip the seams firmly, rear back and let fly with my best (albeit slow-speed) rendition of a Randy Johnson fastball.
"Well, congressman, let me suggest an alternate explanation. Privatization would free up trillions of dollars of investment capital that would flow directly into the coffers of corporations whose CEO's contributed so heavily to the president's campaign in 2000 and again in 2004, not to mention into the election campaigns of numerous senators and congressmen, yourself excluded, of course."
Str-r-r-i-i-ike One! The fans answer with raucous applause and shouts of approval. Once the noise has abated somewhat, I again address the batter. This time, I decide on a change-up. I grip the ball deeply in the palm of my hand. And...here comes the windup... and the pitch.
"Now, we've all seen on the news the distraught and bewildered faces of those stockholders of WorldCom and Enron whose retirement accounts were wiped out when the value of their stock portfolios was reduced to fractions-of-a-cent on the dollar. My question to you, congressman, is this: Even if we do see Jeff Skilling, Bernie Ebbers and Ken Lay doing the perp-walk on CNN, how does that help the destitute thousands who lost everything they had in those notorious corporate shell-games? What assurances can you give these people who depend on their Social Security that they will not end up in the same sad state of destitution?"
This time, Lungren has no intention of taking the pitch. He cocks his bat and lets loose with a mighty swing aimed at the bleachers.
"Well, given the tone of your question, I doubt I could give you any assurances that you would accept. I mean, I wonder what conspiracy theory you are operating out of. If you want to take the position that capitalism is bad..."
But his swing is way out in front of this one and he pulls it foul, into the seats along the third base line. Shouts from the crowd (led by Drolette, of course): "That's not what he said! Don't shoot the messenger!"
The umpire throws out a new ball, and I rough it up as the crowd finally settles into a hush. I peer in for the sign. A slider? You got it. I grit my teeth, kick my left leg up, and let'er rip.
"Let me clarify something," I utter calmly. "I am not against capitalism. It's crony capitalism I object to. And if you want to portray me as some sort of tin-foil-hat conspiracy theorist, go right ahead. But the fact remains that Enron contributions were the single largest block of corporate donations Bush's campaign received in 2000."
Lungren never sees it coming. He just stands there with his bat on his shoulder, watching it fall letter-high into the strike zone. Str-r-r-i-i-ike three call! Your out!
As I head into the dugout, I take one last look at Lungren. He's dead silent.
Five minutes later, the "event" is over. People from all over the hall work their way over to me, patting me on the back, shaking my hand, and saying "You spoke for us. Thank you." A reporter from the Elk Grove paper comes over and asks me for a quote. I tell him only that I appreciated the congressman's willingness to field my questions. Then I work my way up to the dais to shake Lungren's hand and commend him on being willing to engage in a spirited exchange of ideas. He is, of course, as charming and full of sunshine as an Arizona morning at Spring Training. He chats me up quite amiably for a few moments, after which I excuse myself, and Mark and I leave the ballpark (excuse me, the hall).
"Two, four, six, eight, who do we excoriate..."
I doubt the GOP will be using any footage of this particular event to sell the idea that we, the bucolic peasantry, are eagerly clamoring for Social Security privatization. I only hope things go this well in the other town meetings across America.
Ya see, thing is, them highfalutin fellers from D.C.'s got em a whale of a job to do, sellin' us that dad-gum snake oil. Alls us country folks's got to do is stand up straight, look em square in the eyes, and tell em, all nice and polite-like, "None for me, thank ya kindly. Say, you fellers'd best be gettin' a move on now...."