Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Where Have You Gone, Mr. Slattery?

                From 1964  to 1965, there was a television drama on CBS called Slattery's People. It was created by James ( Ben Casey ) Moser and starred Richard Crenna and ( in his first TV series) Ed Asner. Slattery was the minority leader of  an unnamed state legislature, and the "people " of the title were his often eccentric constituents and his fellow politicians. The show  was loved by critics and by those fans who appreciated its literate, thoughtful scripts and its excellent acting. Crenna was nominated for two Emmies and a Golden Globe, and the guest stars on the show included Pat O'Brien, Elsa Lanchester, Warren Oates, James Whitmore, Martin Milner, Vera Miles, Richard Kiley, Ricardo Montalban, Ed Wynn,  and Robert Lansing. The show was not afraid to tackle complex social and moral issues such as  abortion, wiretapping, zoning, "Good Samaritan" Laws, sports gambling, and funding for the arts and sciences. Almost every episode was a minature lesson in how democracy works, and in the inner workings of state legislatures. Every episode began with Richard Crenna uttering these words:  "Democracy is a very bad form of government, but, I ask you never to forget, all of the others are much worse."

                        I bring up this almost forgotten TV show, not to beg CBS to finally release it on DVD, ( Though it would still be an excellent teaching tool for my state and local government classes) , but to ask a very different question. Not, " What happened to the TV show, Slattery's People', but what happened to the sort of politician represented by Jim Slattery? Slattery was portrayed as a thoughtful, hard-working, honest, and tough- minded politician, who cared about his constituents, worked well with almost all his colleagues, and who tried to craft legislation that dealt with  important public issues.

                        Which brings us to my question. ( Every episode title in the show's first season was in the form of a question.) Were have all the Slattery's gone? It is a serious question.  The conscientious, thoughtful, principled politician seems to be a dying species. One of my favorite books about American politics is by the political scientist James Bessette.  It is called The Mild Voice  of Reason, and argues that  good legislatures  do not just make deals and compromises, but instead see their principal legislative task as deliberation., approaching public problems in a thoughtful, conscientious way. Bessettte's book is full of examples of thoughtfully crafted, public-spirited legislation. However, almost none of them are from recent times.

                  In different ways, Slattery's People and The Mild Voice of Reason point to something profoundly disquieting about our public life and about American  politics. More and more, our politiciians must wage "permament campaigns". This has a two- fold meaning. First of, reelection, at any cost, has become paramount.  Electioneeering is not evil in itself, but  contemporary methods of electioneeering inculacte all sorts of political vices. I recently saw  one-time US Senator  James Buckley- a conscientious and skilled legislator in his day, and respected even by many who did not share his brand of conservativism- on C-Span, lamenting the fact that too many politicians  today must spend an increasing portion of their time in fund- raising, rather than deliberation. In addition, spin doctors and media consultants have helped fashion a politics of sound- bites and pseudo events.
                    Even worse,  bipartisanship is gradually becoming a thing of the past. Our politics  is increasingly a matter of taking no prisoners and winning at any cost. As recently as a few years ago , a legislator as liberal as Paul Wellstone was capable of drafting legislation in tandem with men as conservative as Sam Brownback and Pete Domenici. Now bipartisan cooperation is becoming rarer and rarer. Politicians no longer espouse public philosophies;  they are driven by public  ideologies. ( There  is a difference.)

                      Slattery's People may be almost forgotten. However, we must never forget that a healthy democracy needs leaders- and citizens- who are dedicated to public spirited, thoughtful democratic deliberation. It is a lesson we need to relearn today. It may even have been a difficult lesson to learn in the mid-nineteen sixties. After all,  Slattery's People only lasted a season and a half. Viiewers preferred The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

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