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Same Chet, different day

By Michael Di Domenico
web posted January 4, 2010

Flipping through the channels the other evening, I came across Frank Capra's 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Most may remember the story of a naive guy, played by the great Jimmy Stewart, who goes to Washington only to find how terribly corrupt it is, including Mr. Smith's co-Senator and childhood hero.  That it was on, I found peculiar, because I was surfing the channels so as to briefly get away from the deluge of information about the horse trading going on in our Senate.

President Obama, Speaker Pelosi and Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid, the "Three Whoresman of the Apocalypse," are working overtime to buy, with our money, the votes needed to take control of the health care system, and us.  Does anyone else remember when the Democrats stood for keeping the government out of the doctor's office?  Wasn't that what they told us Roe v. Wade was about?

But I digress.   In 1939, when Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was released, few may have realized that America already had a "Mr. Smith" and not just at the Senatorial level, but in the White House.

Whether or not political patronage, the idea that those elected receive rights to appoint a number of their political supporters to government positions, should be allowed to continue was a serious debate going on in post-Civil War America.  In big cities, patronage, also known as the "spoils system," allowed political machines to reward past support and encourage future support all at once.  New York's political machine was run by Roscoe Conkling from his base of operations at the New York Customs House.

Things went smoothly for the supporters of patronage during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant.  In 1871, Grant appointed Conkling friend, Chester Arthur to the powerful position of Collector of the Port of New York.

Chester A. ArthurArthur is one of those interesting contrasts found in history.  While he believed in the spoils system, he was known to be an honorable man and, outside of the patronage, he insisted on the honest administration of the Customs House.  Arthur was able to play both sides of the fence in the 1870s, but events would force him, once and for all, to choose one or the other in the following decade.

Opponents of patronage got the president they wanted in 1876, as Rutherford B. Hayes won, possibly, the most controversial election in U.S. history(Yes; more controversial than 2000 as three states, not one, were in question).  In his attempt to reform the Customs House, Hayes pushed Arthur out the door, but that's not the end of the story.

Obviously, Roscoe Conkling was not a fan of Hayes.  He attempted, without success to nominate his old ally, Ulysses Grant for a third term in 1880.  The push fell short, but the one chip Conkling did procure was that another of his allies, Chester Arthur would join Republican nominee James Garfield on the 1880 Republican Party ticket as Vice President.  They won the election and so the stage was set.

Vice President Arthur became President Arthur after Garfield, who was shot on July 2, 1881, finally succumbed to his wounds on September 19th of the same year.  Arthur took over and doom seemed to be in the air.  After successfully rolling back the influence of the big party machines, suddenly an arm of Roscoe Conkling was sitting in the White House.

It was widely believed that President Arthur would quickly pay back his cronies, but Chet, as he was known to his friends, would prove to be surprisingly presidential.  Imagine that; a president acting presidential.  It must be nice.

President Arthur signed the Pendleton Act in 1883 which removed 14,000 federal jobs from the hands of party bosses and paved the way for the end of patronage.  Arthur had stunned Conklin, his old New York pals and the nation at-large.  With all that was involved, Arthur chose his path for rather simple reasons.  A friend was heard saying of him, "He's no longer Chet Arthur, but the president."  He represented the people and he got it. 

Is there a Chester Arthur out there now; someone powerful from whom nothing but business-as-usual is expected, who shockingly dismisses their personal relationships and bucks the current trajectory, sans compensation simply because it's the right thing to do?  Don't hold your breath, America.

While the people wait and wonder if that will ever happen, members of Congress continue to sell their votes for money and projects they believe will secure their standing in the next election.  Christopher Dodd, of Countrywide fame, just received $100 million for a hospital in Connecticut as part of this deal.  His vote was hardly needed, but his 2010 re-election is in doubt, so the Democrat powers-that-be sprinkled a little money his way.

That's right; $100 million dollars is a pittance in the world of political horse trade.  Just ask Mary Landrieu.  When the esteemed Louisiana congresswoman noticed that the press chided her for selling out for $100 million, she took to the floor to make sure it was known to all, far and wide, that she didn't sell her vote for $100 million.  No.  She got $300 million.  Oh!  She's not a whore.  She's an escort.  I feel so much better now.  Here we're served up a prime example of just how out of touch politicians are.  Landrieu didn't even understand that it wasn't the amount, but the deed, that vexed people.

And what was the price for Senator Ben Nelson's vote?  With many of the 30 million uninsured set to be pushed onto Medicaid rolls, the states will be put under an added financial stress; well, all but one state.  Guess which one.  That's right.  Ben Nelson's very own state of Nebraska will not have to match the Medicaid funds like every other state.  That means, the other 49 states, many of whom are running massive deficits already, will have to take on the extra load of the uninsured and pick up 1/49th of the bill for Nebraska, in perpetuity!  On the bright side, we all have a reason to move to Nebraska now. 

At the outset, Nelson acted as though his morals could just not allow him to support a bill that federally funded abortion, but in the end, with Medicaid immunity in hand for Nebraska, his "morals" seemed to shift.  He signed on without the strong language he demanded just days before.  One hundred years ago or even ten years ago, this might have worked, but people are watching now.  Nebraskans should treat Nelson like a philandering lover.  Wouldn't it be nice if he returned home for the holidays, only to find his clothes strewn all over Iowa?

The list of payouts and bribes for this health care monstrosity will continue to be uncovered.  In response to this perfidious activity, Senator Tom Harkin described these deals as "small stuff."  Doesn't that just burn you? 

And here's the cherry on top of the Twilight Zone sundae that 2009 has become.  President Obama said that the government can no longer spend taxpayer money like "monopoly money."  Washington lip service that deft is usually reserved for the likes of Eliot Spitzer.

But the 2009 party is over for the progressives.  The new year may begin with their continued indulgence, but the hangover is coming and this one's going to be a doozie.  Next November, Americans will have a chance to respond to this lunacy, so take heart.  The "Chet Arthurs" and "Mr. Smiths" are out there.  They aren't the people we see in this government right now, but everyday people; our friends and neighbors.  And it will be these people, not the political class currently in Washington or the tripe the Republican Party will pass off as conservative, who will lead us out of this mess.

There were plenty of positives in 2009, as well.  Tea Parties, marches on Washington and politicians really getting to know their constituents at Town Halls told me we aren't dead yet; in fact, we're very much alive.  So while 2009 may not have been what you'd hoped for, worry not.  Pendulums swing and this swing has topped out. ESR

Copyright Bald Eagle Press, LLC. Contact Michael at baldeaglepress@yahoo.com.

 

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