Pitman Tom

By Kevin Avram
web posted September 11, 2000

Pitman Tom has helped me understand something. For a long time I tried to figure out why there's a growing number of people who are infatuated with the idea that politicians shouldn't be partisan or disagree about things.

It's baffled me because a legislative body or Congress is where partisan ideas are supposed to clash. By definition, democracy means that individual citizens have an absolute and unalterable responsibility to observe that clash of ideas and figure out who's right and who's wrong.

Let me explain about Pitman Tom. Like a lot of people in Nebraska, I grew up in a small town. During the daytime, the town's hot spot was Percy's Barber Shop. Percy's place was in the middle of the single block of Main Street we referred to as "downtown." The bench out front is where the town's good old boys would perch themselves after having their morning coffee over at the OK Café. [1]

Bud Kirkby would be there. He was a staunch democrat who was always telling tall tales about the war. Pete Zerr would often drop by. He's the guy everyone called Repeat because after downing a few whiskeys he'd stutter.

Sam Wooten and Pitman Tom were usually there too. The boys attached the prefix "Pitman" to Tom's name because he was forever telling stories about things that happened when he'd lived in the even smaller town of Pitman twenty years earlier.

Hardly a week went by when those old boys didn't have a dispute over some bit of trivia or question of fact. When that happened, a friendly wager would take place and Percy would be dragged from his barbershop, comb and scissors in hand. As funny as it sounds, Percy could settle an argument about anything - who hit the most home runs in the '55 World Series, the British commander during the War of 1812, the inventor of penicillin - Percy knew it all. He could quote Shakespeare by heart or rattle off the names of Tudor kings.

Bud was the biggest liar. Repeat told the best jokes. Percy knew the most. But Pitman Tom had a character trait that truly set him apart. Even when Bud would tell an obvious whopper about how he supposedly won a chest full of medals or saved some famous general's life during the war, Pitman Tom never knew when someone was pulling his leg.

The others would tease him about it in a good-natured sort of way, which made his ears turn red. Then he'd wander off down the street mumbling how "everyone should get along and not tell lies." Every morning after it happened, Tom would be right back at Percy's, getting sucked into believing the same or similar lies all over again. That would lead to more good-natured teasing and Tom would again head off down the street mumbling that "everyone should get along and not tell lies."

I don't think Tom ever did come to a place where he could have confidence in his own judgment. And unfortunately, he always blamed the behavior of other people for his lack of discernment. To some degree that's what people who pine for a nonpartisan Congress or Legislature do. The reason they criticize politicians and political parties for being "partisan" is that they themselves are not perceptive enough to figure out who's right.

On issues that they have figured out, they take a stand and are critical of the politician or party that they see as being wrong. But when unable to discern the subtleties of an issue, like Pitman Tom, they walk away mumbling about how the world would be a better place if "everyone got along and didn't tell lies."

The truth is that if you look beneath the surface, the preoccupation some people have with accusing elected officials of being partisan, actually says more about the shortcomings of the accusers, than it does the partisan nature of politics.

[1] The individuals described in this commentary are composites of small town characters that actually live(d) in and around the community and region in which the author grew up.

Kevin Avram is the executive vice president of the The Niobrara Institute which can be found at Bellevue University Campus, PO Box 540787, Omaha NE 68154. The Niobrara Institute was established to promote greater freedom for the individual and carry out an educational role with respect to wealth creation and responsible public policy. (c) The Niobrara Institute

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