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Mr. Smith promises not to go to Washington

Published Oct. 8, 2005

I'm against government. Used to be you couldn't do that. Be against government, I mean. It meant you were an anarchist. Like Sacco and Vanzetti. They were anarchists, weren't they? In those days anarchists got locked up, though I think Sacco and Vanzetti were hanged or went to the chair, which is neither here nor there.

I mention anarchy only because of my congressman. Came in here the other day, said, "Friend, you can fool some of the people all of the time, and I can tell from looking at you that you're part of that sweet-smelling, ever-loving, eternally foolable some."

"And you've come all the way from Washington just to fool me again," said I. I was delighted. Still, figuring it was best to give it to him straight from the shoulder, I told him I wasn't voting to send him back to Washington this time.

He choked a little, like a man fighting back tears, but said he couldn't blame me. Personally, he said, he was so sick and tired of Washington that he had been thinking of not even voting for himself.

In the nick of time, however, he had seen the light and would make a fight for his seat. I said it didn't surprise me, as he was well over 40, an age at which freight-car lots of downsized corporate execs were discovering that nobody would ever hire them again.

"Oh, my friend, never be a cynic," he said. "If I do not run, my opponent will be elected without opposition, and do you know what that rascal will do then?"

"Go right straight to Washington," I said.

He smiled, and I could see him worrying that maybe I wasn't the fool I claimed to be. This unnerved me. When they suspect you've got enough sense to see through their TV commercials, they start promising you things. Last time it was health insurance and look what they delivered, the treacherous swine. Forgive my language.

"Listen," he said, "if my opponent is elected he's going to Washington. Elect me, and I promise never to go to Washington." It was mighty appealing. How can the country ever get government off its back as long as the people we elect keep going there?

Everybody talks about term limitations maybe saving America from Congress, but why not go all the way while we're at it? Let's have Congress limitation. That's right: Make it go completely out of business after the next three or four years. And then stay out of business. Permanently.

My congressman thinks this is a brilliant idea. "You mean, get rid of government entirely?" he said.

"Who needs it?"

"Absolutely right," he said.

"Government isn't the answer," I said.

It just popped right out. I'd heard him and a thousand other politicians and thinkers say, "Government isn't the answer," so often that it must have been programed in my vocal cords, all ready to pop out at the slightest provocation. It popped again:

"Government isn't the answer."

"Absolutely right," said the congressman. "Government is not the answer."

His good humor gave me the courage to ask something I'd been wondering about for months.

"What's the question, congressman?"

"What question?"

"The question to which government is not the answer."

"Well," said he, and I could tell he was reassessing me. "Well," said he, "you're not as easy to fool as you'd like me to believe, are you, my friend?" I begged him not to think so.

"What else can I think when I utter the stupid-bromide-of-the-season about government not being the answer, and you snap back with a wise-guy reply like, "What's the question?' You've been thinking, haven't you?"

"No, no, never. Absolutely not."

"Don't try to fool me. You're one of those elitists, aren't you?"

Fear of being branded an "elitist" made me gibber and quake while promising to let him fool me whenever he liked. I must begin by voting to re-elect him because he promises not to go to Washington, and even pretend I believe he won't.

New York Times News Service