They're All Bums, Right?


Los Angeles. -- I hear that Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the gentlewoman from Texas, is not so gentle at all, and I am no great fan of her politics. She is also a professional politician, part of a group that can get pretty tedious. But I do not believe she should go to jail for 60 years because of these things.

That would be the maximum sentence the new Republican senator could get for the five indictments brought against her last Monday back home in Travis County.

Said the county prosecutor, Ronnie Earle: "Our duty is clear . . . in a true democracy, no one is above the law."

Can't argue with that. But does that mean politicians have to be beneath the law made for the rest of us?

From what I can gather, she used her office for political purposes -- shocking! -- which seems to mean she made personal calls and used her staff to begin her senatorial campaign while she was still being paid as state treasurer.

In other words, she did what everyone else does -- solid citizens as well as politicians. Breathes there a man or woman who has never said, "It's OK, Mom, it's not costing anything. I'm calling from the office"?

For most of us it's a perk, and the company is lucky to have us. For public officials, most places it's a felony. There is an amazing paradox at the wiggly line where politics meets the law: We allow politicians to buy public office; we allow them to keep campaign laws that essentially legalize bribery; but if they they call home on an office phone or bounce a check, we call the cops.

Mr. Earle, a member of the other party, the Democrats, is said to be a man of sterling character. He has refused to specify details of what Ms. Hutchison did or is alleged to have done.

But it seems to involve using her staff, public employees, to prepare fund-raising lists and schedule political trips. Then when she learned there were computer records of that indiscretion (or crime), she ordered the evidence erased. She probably did that. Another felony.

The hell with her. They're all bums, right?

At the same time, the current issue of Money magazine, which has a refreshing streak of populism for a journal coming out of the Time-Life Building, has a nicely done story on the perks, the pay and the pensions of the nation's 50 governors. "While the states and their citizens have been struggling," says Money, "many of their executives have been living like regal heads of state."

That is, if they can live regally on salaries that average $85,000 and, in the magazine's words, "a generous array of fringe benefits, the value of which can easily exceed $100,000 a year."

It sounds like a lot to most people. But, truth be told, jobs of equivalent responsibility in the sanctified and sanctimonious "private sector" pay in the many hundreds of thousands of dollars, even in the millions. I'll bet that editors of Time-Life magazines are paid a lot more than governors -- plus they get stock options.

But the hell with governors. They're all bums, right?

I would like to make three points about this and then go off and grump by myself:

(1) One of the reasons we think politicians are bums is because we, and they themselves during campaigns, hold candidates and officials to petty and simplistic standards that corporate chief executive officers would laugh at.

(2) Like it or not, this is a society that values people by how much money they make. Politicians, most of them, don't make much -- even if they are among the lucky ones who get cars and drivers and a mansion. Those mansions and courthouses and capitols, including the Capitol in Washington, were built by our forefathers to dramatize the grandeur of democracy and government by law -- and of we, the people.

(3) The penny-ante approach to judging and reimbursing public officials eliminates many of the best and the brightest who worry about getting caught making a $1.95 phone call to their hair stylist. So, as senators and governors and ambassadors, we are getting ourselves more and more rich jerks who can finance their own campaigns and pay their own expenses in the office. We are at the mercy of the underemployed rich, men and women who don't take cars and drivers or live in the mansions -- because their own cars, drivers and homes are better to begin with.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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