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That wasn't much of a tip, Rep. Canady

Maybe Carolee Westcott's behavior wasn't "hospitaliano," whatever that is. That's what Westcott, a waitress at the Olive Garden restaurant in Lakeland, says her boss told her when she was fired the other day.

And maybe U.S. Rep. Charles Canady, R-Lakeland, didn't really want Westcott to lose her job. That's what he has been telling everybody ever since his little spat with Westcott became news.

But what did Canady figure would happen to Westcott after he complained to Olive Garden managers about her behavior? It's not good for business to cross the local congressman, especially one as touchy _ and politically untouchable _ as Canady.

And how else was Westcott supposed to convey her displeasure with Canady's performance as her elected representative?

Vote against him? Fat chance.

Canady was unopposed in November. Most of his colleagues in Florida's congressional delegation also were unopposed or faced only token opposition. Our campaign finance laws are stacked in favor of incumbent members of Congress (of both parties), and our congressional districts are gerrymandered to protect incumbents (of both parties).

So voters in the Lakeland area are stuck with Canady, whether they like it or not, just as voters in chunks of Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties are stuck with Mike Bilirakis, and voters in the Jacksonville area are stuck with Corrine Brown. Even incompetent or corrupt members of Congress are as safe as mother's milk unless they do something astoundingly stupid.

That's why Canady doesn't have to worry about the political consequences of behaving like such a self-righteous dweeb during the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment proceedings, even though polls show that about two-thirds of the American people disagree with the actions taken by Canady and his Republican colleagues.

Canady doesn't have to worry about what his constituents think, because his seat is bullet-proof. And he certainly doesn't have to worry about what some lowly Olive Garden waitress thinks. It's not like he was elected to represent her.

Westcott didn't curse Canady at the Olive Garden. She didn't even call him a self-righteous dweeb. In fact, she says she wouldn't have said anything to him at all if he hadn't overheard her talking about him and invited her to his table.

Westcott says she simply told Canady he "stabbed my president in the back" and "ignored the will of the people." That's not exactly music to a diner's ears, but it comes with the territory. Listen to the crowds just about every time President Clinton ventures out in public. He hears from plenty of well-wishers and glad-handers, as does Canady, but he also gets heckled unmercifully. And he deserves it.

And to the best of my knowledge, the president hasn't gotten any of his hecklers fired. That's one of the greatest things about the United States: You can heckle the president and not get fired, much less jailed or shot.

But woe to the waitress who dare give the mighty Charles Canady a piece of her mind. For him, freedom of speech ends at the restaurant door.

Of course, that's one of the worst things about the United States today: You better do your heckling on your own time, because there's no such thing as freedom of speech in the workplace.

I'm the exception, and don't think I don't appreciate it. I can call Charles Canady a self-righteous dweeb, or call Bill Clinton a pathological liar who's afraid of grown women (especially his wife), and get paid for my trouble.

And while I was at it, I could mention that Bill McCollum is a self-righteous dweeb, too.

Where do we find these people? Texas is making a habit of electing ill-tempered bullies such as Dick Armey, Phil Gramm and Tom DeLay. They even have ill-tempered names. And Florida has taken to electing prissy bluenoses such as Canady and McCollum. Are these guys truly representative of the state that gave us Hooters and South Beach?

So anyway, I'm lucky enough to have a job that allows me to make fun of politicians. I can even be nice to them if the mood strikes me. (Bill Bradley _ what a guy!)

But I, like millions of other working stiffs, put my job at risk if I make fun of my employers. That doesn't stop me from doing it from time to time, but I have come to realize that criticizing the boss or insulting the customer is not the ideal path to job security.

And heaven forfend if I should tell a joke that might offend an eavesdropper in the company cafeteria, or offer a clumsily worded compliment to a woman in the elevator. I would be back in remedial sensitivity training before you could say hospitaliano.

One final point: I disagree with what Westcott said to Canady (even though I defend her right to say it in the Olive Garden of her choice).

Canady and our other elected officials shouldn't always be bound by the opinions of their constituents. We elect them to exercise their best judgment, not to parrot our views. Nuclear arms treaties, Medicare reforms and impeachment decisions really don't lend themselves to popular votes.

But our elected representatives at least should be willing to hear what we voters have to say. Democracy is a two-way street, Rep. Canady. And in my experience, the average waitress is a much better judge of people than the average congressman.