IT should come as no great surprise that most Americans have low opinions of their so-called public servants in Washington, D.C. One recent poll put the approval rating of Congress in a single digit.
Local residents looking for cause and effect had only to read two recent opinion page essays in The Republic by John Krull, who directs Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, and former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, who represented Indiana’s 9th District for 34 years.
Krull recalled a visit to his college during the 2008 presidential campaign by Susan Rice, who has come under fire from a number of Republican senators over comments she made immediately following the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya. She currently serves as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations but is speculated to be under consideration for the post of secretary of state.
While mentioning the current Republican attacks and the feelings by many in that party that Rice’s comments were misleading, Krull suggested that anger directed at the ambassador might be based on other factors, such as her attitude, which he observed during that 2008 visit.
At that time, Rice was a campaign surrogate for then Sen. Barack Obama. She and former U.S. Rep. Tim Roemer, who represented Indiana’s 3rd District for 12 years, were criss-crossing the state promoting their fellow Democrat’s presidential campaign.
In both a meeting with Krull and later during a talk before the student body, he said Rice came across as arrogant and dismissive.
As I read Krull’s column I began to feel a sense of deja vu.
The Rice-Roemer team had paid a visit to Columbus as part of that campaign swing and asked to meet with the editorial board of The Republic. Roemer came across as the seasoned politician he was, even sounding folksy as he discussed the differing positions on foreign policy staked out by Obama and his rival, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Rice, on the other hand, acted as if she had a lot more important things to do than sit down to talk foreign policy with a bunch of Hoosier journalists.
Midway through the meeting her cellphone rang. She picked it up and walked out of the room, leaving Roemer to talk about his party’s stance on foreign affairs. She never came back.
Roemer tried to pull it off, but his embarrassment was obvious. As a seasoned politician, he was well aware of the importance of connecting on a personal level with all he met and giving those people a sense that their opinions were important.
I really didn’t invest a lot of time worrying about Rice’s dismissive attitude at the time, but Krull’s column this week gave me the sense that our experience was not unique.
The column also reminded me of the essay Hamilton had written a few days earlier about the importance of constituent service by elected officials.
Hamilton, a Columbus attorney before beginning his long congressional career in the mid-1960s, was a highly respected statesman who chaired or co-chaired several committees dealing with critical international issues. His name repeatedly surfaced in discussions about potential presidential candidates, and he often was on very short lists for cabinet nominations.
However, he noted in the article in The Republic that one of the principal duties of a member of Congress was to see to the needs of constituents.
Elected officials were sent to Washington not just to vote on the pressing issue of the day but to help a veteran back home get benefits that were due him or assist an elderly Hoosier work through the maze of Social Security or Medicare.
A lot of the constituent work is done by staff members, but Hamilton noted that it was critical that the process be overseen by the member of Congress. He cited the dismissive attitude of one of his colleagues when he was approached by a constituent asking for help in getting a Social Security matter resolved. The politician told the constituent that he didn’t have time to look into the matter because of pressing policy issues.
Apparently, that constituent wasn’t the only one who had encountered such an attitude from the member of Congress. He was defeated in the next election.
I can remember from my own experience instances in which our family had to turn to our elected representative for assistance in resolving a pay issue for our son, who was on active duty with the U.S. Army. We repeatedly ran into problems with the military chain of command and finally turned to Rep. Phil Sharp, who represented Indiana’s 2nd District at the time.
His office went to work on the problem right away, and the Army rectified its error. I thanked Sharp for the efforts of his office, and he demonstrated a clear recollection of our son’s case. I didn’t always agree with him on some of his political positions, but we were forever indebted to him and his staff for helping solve a family problem with the government.
I think that tradition has been continued for the most part by those who followed Hamilton and Sharp in the U.S. House of Representatives, but there also seem to be a great many who think of their roles as being players on the world stage.
True, most people do want them to vote the way we think they ought to vote, but we also want them to help us when we’re in need. In other words, some of them have gotten too big for their britches.
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at email@example.com.