Most often, it's better to be lucky than good. Last Thursday, I was lucky enough to claim one of the 900-odd seats in the visitors' gallery of the United States House of Representatives and even luckier to be present as California's Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as the country's first-ever female Speaker of the House.
Clutching my gallery ticket as if it were a stock certificate, I arrived an hour before the 110th Congress' opening session, just so that I could sit quietly in the empty chamber, a place where 15 American presidents have delivered State of the Union addresses and the place where Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 stood somberly the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, that now-famous "date that will live in infamy."
Happily, the woman standing at the podium later this balmy January afternoon presided over a far more convivial gathering. With hundreds of members' children swarming over the floor, the House chamber looked as much like a day-care center as a legislative assembly.
But applause and celebration notwithstanding, Pelosi made clear that her intentions were just as serious as FDR's, as she took a figurative leaf out of his scrapbook, in this, a winter of considerable national discontent. From the podium, the Speaker launched a frontal assault on the political status quo ante so roundly rejected by voters last November, vowing that her new Democratic House would be the kind of place where a hundred-days' pace would be far too languid.
"Let us join together in the first 100 hours to make this Congress the most honest and open in history," she said.
Time will tell if Pelosi can fulfill that promise, but her break from the starting gate was certainly impressive. Within an hour, the House was in full session, dealing with an ethics-reform bill designed to break the "culture of corruption" Democrats claim has engulfed the national political process. Most sections of that particular bill were voted on that first day, forcing congressmen like new 9th District representative Steve Cohen to linger long after dark at the Capitol, making them late for their own victory parties.
Watching the Speaker strike so quickly, I could not help but think of how badly our own city needs similar therapy in dealing with the "culture of corruption" that has so seriously infected its body politic. Here in Memphis, half a dozen former state and county officials have been indicted and/or convicted on corruption charges. Two current City Council members have been indicted for bribery, with their refusal to resign supported by a majority of their peers. Others on the council call for ethics reform while appearing seriously conflicted themselves.
Our city is not well. Is there a doctor in the house?
We have, in fact, long had a doctor in charge of our civic affairs, but recent events make me wonder if Dr. Herenton's medicine bag is just about empty. At his annual New Year's Day prayer breakfast, the mayor's response to this corruption crisis was to declare that Memphis' foremost need was ... a brand-new football stadium.
Perhaps Jerry Jones has a fondness for Memphis barbecue and is moving the Dallas Cowboys here. But otherwise, I fear that the mayor's stadium proposal is about as likely to make Memphis a better place as President Bush's forthcoming Iraq "surge" is to bring peace and prosperity to an increasingly anarchic Middle East.
Inside the Beltway last week, Bush's bizarre Iraq scheme was all anyone wanted to talk about, and the talk was rarely positive.
Speaking with an AP reporter, Republican congresswoman Heather Wilson of New Mexico expressed the conventional wisdom succinctly: "I have not seen a clarity of mission, and I think that's the greatest weakness we have right now." Wilson might just as well have been speaking about Memphis' City Council and its mayor, leaders whose "clarity of mission" apparently extends no further than planning for their next reelection campaigns.
Our civic leaders all should have been in Washington last week, where at least some national political figures demonstrated that they now "get it." The Democratic Party seems to realize that business-as-usual is no business at all and that the American people have lost patience with crooks, charlatans, and incompetents.
How nice it would be if Memphis voters could deliver the same message at the ballot box come October.
Kenneth Neill is the founder and publisher of the Memphis Flyer.