So Much For Civics Class

When the good-old-days crowd get together over coffee in a diner, at the card table at home, one of the things they sometimes bemoan is the end of civics class in school. You remember civics: a kid with no more interest in the tripartite system of government than he has in couture clothes or chamber music gets to memorize the number of people on the Supreme Court, the two parts of Congress and the function of the Electoral College.

People my age were probably the last to take civics as a free-standing course, and to learn the Pledge of Allegiance by heart, and this set some of us up for disappointment in later life. In learning about democracy vs. fascism, one-man-one-vote vs. oligarchy, we became idealistic. Unfortunately, civics gave way to politics, with its harsher lessons. And over time we realized that if our children were to study how government works, they would inevitably learn that ideals have become laughable, the people incidental, and democracy has become illusory. Those old enough to read the paper and watch television news would already know this, if only by keeping careful watch over the big-bang defection of Sen. James M. Jeffords.

In a moment of clarity last week, the senator from Vermont, who is a moderate Republican, decided to leave the party because, veering right with a vengeance, it no longer served his needs. This put control of the Senate in the hands of Democrats, along with committee chairmanships, which apparently are the most important thing in the whole wide world. In civics class children would probably assume that this would set off some soul-searching. What were the policies of the party that had disenchanted a man who had been a member for decades? What core beliefs were at odds with those of the president and his fellow senators? What did he hope to accomplish as an independent for the people of his state and of the nation?

Instead the obvious lesson of the episode is that everything in government is up for sale. That's certainly been clear for a long time in the fund-raising arena. Tobacco companies pay protection money to political-action committees, and the Republicans, who proclaimed themselves outraged about Democratic fund-raising in the White House, "the people's house," held a bash for megadonors in the vice president's house, which is apparently only "the people's party crib."

But doing business in the Senate, it turns out, is one payoff after another, albeit only tangentially of the cash-money sort. When Jeffords appeared ready to jump ship, Republicans rallied to promise him that he could occupy a new position as chief party moderate, since apparently the Republicans noticed only last week that there actually are moderates in the party. They also offered a coveted committee-chairman spot, an extension of his tenure as head of the Education Committee and more federal money for education for the disabled. As the parent of a disabled child, wouldn't that warm your heart, to know help was dependent on whether the Republicans could bribe Jim Jeffords to stay inside the so-called big tent of the GOP?

In all the coverage of this debacle, and of the first 100 days of the Bush administration, there's been precious little discussion of principles or ideals. Where American children were once invited to think of democracy as a religion, now it has been revealed as at best chess, at worst Pac-Man. Jeffords's defection, some reports suggest, came because the Bush administration shut him out of a party honoring the teacher of the year. Jeffords, complained the Bushies, never told them he was ticked off. Key senators scuttled here and there between the two sides, trying to make peace or, more accurately, broker a deal. Any parent of a seventh-grade girl would recognize this frantic pas de deux. But would Thomas Jefferson?

When the good-old-days crowd get together, over a beer in a bar or at their own kitchen counters, they are often fooling themselves. Warren G. Harding was surrounded by scoundrels, and even Lincoln made deals. But the scope and power of the media have made the machinations harder to hide. On C-Span you can see that the senior senator from Wherever is orating passionately to an empty chamber. New challenges require new responses; you would think political figures would learn to turn this new scrutiny to their advantage, or at least to live with it. Instead political figures attack the messengers for the accounts of their own shortcomings. Any child taking civics in the New York City public schools, for instance, would learn that part of the recompense for being mayor is that you can flagrantly cheat on your wife, install your mistress as your de facto public companion and municipal hostess, then complain that reporters are to blame for the fallout. In a related development, teaching children civility is made more complex when they can watch Raoul Felder, the divorce lawyer and hired pit bull, liken the mayor's wife to a farm animal on several channels simultaneously.

What in the world could a teacher bring to the table in a civics lesson today? The stained blue dress? The Watergate break-in? The message is... to stay on message. That's inspiring. Is there soul-searching today in the halls of Congress and the thickly carpeted rooms of the West Wing about what happened, about governance and compromise and statecraft? Get outta town, as the kids say. They're spinning like tops. Jeffords was always a loose cannon. The Democrats in power will be less effective than the Democrats out of power. The game continues. The mistake is in thinking the people are participants. On the other hand, as we like to tell our children about the most hated popular kid in the class, why would you want to be a part of that scene? Here's a civics lesson: "Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." Sounds like Abbie Hoffman, doesn't it? John Adams, U.S. president, two centuries before the ascendancy of spin and the triumph of triangulation tightened the noose around the neck of public idealism.