Streetcar Line

Happenings in the Hinterlands

Americans show civic virtue. But you have to get out of Washington to understand that.

By 6.3.11

Send to Kindle

It's decompression time. I sit among unopened boxes and suitcases and mispositioned furniture, having moved back to the Gulf Coast (Mobile, AL) to be closer to family, after a little more than five years in the D.C. area. As also happened (to a slightly lesser degree) when I left D.C. after about five years in early 1987 and again after a separate five years at the end of 1996, even my relatively few excursions outside of our not-yet-organized house already have shown me that now I'm in the "real world" again, surrounded by people who go about their daily lives without all their actions somehow defined by the latest developments in politics.

It's not so much the pace that's different as it is the (non-meteorological) atmospheric pressure: It's a sense that one isn't surrounded by people whose self-importance is inflated by a second-degree connection with some sub-Cabinet deputy administrator. It's the sense that some parts of life can be navigated without lawyers. It's the conviction that "power" and "vacation" don't belong anywhere in the same sentence (except within quotation marks to make a point).

I had thought (wrongly, as we shall see after a few paragraphs of digression) that this column would be about how these past five years made me feel like a Forrest Gump (albeit, I hope, a more intelligent one), in the sense that I kept feeling as if I were a witness or minor participant in almost everything big that happened -- without really having done anything special except be there. I was in the room when Citizens United gave the official go-ahead to its lawyer to file the campaign-finance lawsuit that led to one of the most significant Supreme Court decisions in years. I was the one who drafted the editorials that drew the attention of the brilliant Rush Limbaugh to warn in memorable ways about Obamacare's end-of-life rationing, which in turn led Sarah Palin to use her sloganeering genius to build a whole movement against "death panels." I helped break and keep alive the story of how the Obama Justice Department dropped most of the voter-intimidation cases against members of the New Black Panther Party. I reported from Guantanamo Bay and from the vice president's residence

I felt, morbidly, like somebody chose me, against my will, as a witness to death: I was in the room for William F. Buckley's last-ever public speaking appearance; I saw Tony Snow shortly before he took ill for the last time; I saw Robert Novak driving his black convertible Corvette just days before he was stricken with sure evidence of a brain tumor; I was the second-last person ever to speak to anti-David-Duke heroine Beth Rickey and was in contact (having no inkling of his condition) with former Louisiana Gov. Dave Treen the day before he died.

For that matter, far too many important conservatives died in just a few short years: Jack Kemp, Henry Hyde, Milton and Rose Friedman, Paul Weyrich, Mary Lou Forbes, William Safire, and Irving Kristol among them. And my Dad died, too.

The economy also died, with its original panic starting just one day after I warned of a coming panic .

Was it all because of something I did wrong?

WITH LESS THAN A WEEK out of D.C., however, clarity comes. I wasn't Gump. Nothing was unique about my experience. That's just how Washington works. You just show up and things start happening and your ego pretty soon starts to tell you that whatever happened was somehow dependent on your being there. In retrospect, though, that's absurd: Stuff happens because so many big egos are trying to make things happen, and if you just hang around long enough, those things will happen while you're there. Then you get a big ego too, and when you try to make things happen you're as likely as not to make the wrong thing happen -- in ways that backfire not as much on you as on so many other people outside of the Beltway whose lives are affected by the policy changes or storylines created by your own bull-in-china-shop routine.

Then you start thinking something you did unintentionally created disaster. I was the first out of the box, right here at the Spectator, in blasting Mike Huckabee. Sure, Huck was bad -- but did blocking Huck cause us all to be stuck with John McCain, who lost to Barack Obama when Huck might have won? Is the nightmare of this Obama presidency my fault?

To which the re-oriented Hillyer in Mobile says to self: "Stop it, Hillyer; you're just not that important."

What is important is something I noticed, and started telling people, in early 2006 within two weeks of arriving back for my third stint in Washington: Already then, it was clear to me that somehow political D.C. had become meaner, more selfish, more demagogic, less likely to inculcate statesmanship, than it had been in either the 1980s or 1990s. This might sound absurd to say, because politics in Washington wasn't exactly tiddlywinks in those earlier decades either. But it's true. I found that people who never left D.C. agreed with me as well. In some almost indefinable but palpable way, things had gone downhill.

Despite what the media would say, this wasn't the fault of the Bush administration. I challenge anybody to show me even a single outlandishly nasty statement or cheap shot said in public by a single member of the Bush high command. It just didn't happen. But the left, in response to Bush, was vicious. What was frustrating was that the Bush administration became inept on multiple fronts while Republicans on Capitol Hill provided very few profiles in principle (Mike Pence, John Shadegg, Jeff Sessions, and Jim DeMint being among the few exceptions). This meant that the viciousness of the left was met with vacuousness on the vaguely right of the spectrum. And, in seeking little other than to preserve their careers, too many on the vaguely right lost their careers in the process. Lack of principles proved yet again to be bad politics.

Here, though, is where, just in the past two hours, I've suddenly realized that the complaints of the previous two paragraphs are so 2008-ish. Now that I've escaped Washington, I am becoming aware that official Washington has somewhat, ever-so-slightly, improved. It did so because people here out in the hinterlands forced it to do so. Americans proved they love their country. The Tea Party movement played the largest role in sending four score and seven freshmen Republicans to the House even though the RNC was chaired by a bumbling, solipsistic embarrassment. And, while too many of those 87 freshmen and their Tea Party backers sometimes miss the difference between constructive compromise and craven capitulation, the courage of an entire caucus standing firm for entitlement reform is a glorious thing to behold.

With the people leading, the politicians are following not sheepishly but with verve. In response to popular demand, many congressmen are demanding, or providing, real accountability from government.

Against the people's determined fiscal rectitude, Debbie Wasserman Schultz at the DNC may still sling demagoguery around like verbal confetti, but it's confetti that doesn't glitter: It just looks, from any angle, like trash.

The Washington Post editorial page, mirabile dictu, has repeatedly blasted Democrats for inaction and demagoguery on Medicare and other matters. Sure, the Post remains editorially liberal (and its news pages and headlines are more liberal still), but it is the constructive and mostly fair-minded center-leftism that marked the New Republic during most of the 1990s. Somehow, the Post's thoughtfulness seems to give hope that not all is lost, and that bipartisan statesmanship is at least possible.

For numerous reasons I meant to describe in this column -- including some having much to do with national policy and politics -- living in the D.C. area is, in quotidian ways, worse than ever. Yet this column, taking on a life of its own, won't go there today. What this column, writing itself against my original intentions, wants to stress is that here in the hinterlands, we -- all of you -- do matter. State attorneys general, responding to the voters, are challenging Obamacare. Parents and charter school organizations are taking education into their own commonsensical hands. You, all who make time for real community action, are making Washington listen, and you are doing it with better humor than official Washington wants to credit you for.

A good and decent American people cares about its heritage of freedom. And if in Washington the politics is too much with everybody, late and soon, the truth is that the rest of the nation has proved it can fit productive politics a little more into its daily life of honest work and school carpools and soccer practices and church attendance. We all should continue to work politics -- or, rather, to work good citizenship, which includes political volunteerism -- into our lives, in the right (modest) doses and the right perspective.

This is the Madisonian ideal of constitutional citizenship.

"Who are the best keepers of the people's liberties?" Madison asked in the National Gazette on Dec. 22, 1792 . He answered, "The people themselves. The sacred trust can be no where so safe as in the hands most interested in preserving it…. [T]he people ought to be enlightened, to be awakened, to be united, that after establishing a government they should watch over it, as well as obey it."

As usual, Madison was right. Americans are proving him right anew, and out here away from the Beltway is just the right place to advance the sacred civic cause.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.