I’m not picking on Rep. Kevin McCarthy, but a New York Times story about his selection to replace Rep. Eric Cantor as House majority leader triggered my conditioned gag reflex when I read this:
Republicans picked “a guy who is the grandson of a cattle rancher, the son of a firefighter,” Mr. McCarthy said Thursday. “Only in America do you get that opportunity…”
First of all, why do politicians and their handlers perpetually refer to their ancestry to bolster their creds? If the answer is that voters deserve to know whether he comes from good stock, then I’m looking forward to the first politician who, in the public interest, says, “I’m a guy who is the son of lottery winner — a profligate playboy who threw it all away on baubles, booze and bordellos. But I ask the voters to overlook that, if you will. I’ll try to do better than my Dad.”
(NOTE: I wrote that “lottery” quip before learning that McCarthy actually bought a deli at the age of 19 with his lottery winnings. Ok, so maybe he threw it all away on beef, bologna and braunschweiger. He sold the deli to go to college and got a marketing degree, then an MBA. Since 2002 he’s been in elected office.)
The politician continually conjures his blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth ancestors and waxes nostalgic over the hardscrabble conditions they endured, as if they suffered long in hopes that some day they’d spawn a politician. He does this because we Americans admire hard work. We feel a deep kinship with the land and admire those who till the soil. We stand in awe of one who rushes toward danger to save others. And we know that such men have become too rare.
The politicians want some of that to rub off on them, but in their hearts most of them know they wouldn’t last a week in grandpa’s world. They’re talkers, and readers, and greeters with clean fingernails, fine garments and a musculature sculpted (if at all) only for show.
Second, there’s the attitude that being a congressman is somehow better than being a rancher or a firefighter — as if it’s higher on the evolutionary tree, a saltation so spectacular it could not have been anticipated in the previous generation.
“If you hadn’t elected me,” the politician seems to say, “I might have got stuck plowing fields, castrating hogs or running into burning buildings. But things turned out much better for me. I’m a glorious politician, freed forever from the burden of getting bread by the sweat of my brow.”
Footnote: I know my grandfather, who reared me and three brothers , would have bragged to the grocery clerk if he had lived two more months and had seen me elected as a county commissioner. He worked 35 years shaping cold steel into railcars. He stormed Normandy and would have done the same at Japan if not for the bomb. I’m not worthy, nor able to unlace his boots, and I could never walk in them without looking foolish. Getting elected to office is not an exaltation, but a humbling. It’s dropping down from your hind legs to be fitted with a saddle, and a pack.