Chris Timmons: Lawmakers must embrace the joy of true public service

Oh, it’s not good looking for the citizens of Florida.

The Florida Legislature is back in session, and nothing is likely to get done.

Don’t take this columnist’s word for it.

Go to the state’s Capitol building in Tallahassee, specifically, on the fourth floor, pull up a camping chair and talk with the fourth branch of state government: The men wearing tasseled Gucci loafers and women with Louis Vuitton handbags.

Who? Duh, the Florida lobbying corps.

Don’t want to waste the gas money? (Oh, what a dream is the Obama economy: $1.89 for gas!)

Then read this recent survey conducted by the Tampa Bay Times of 120 political insiders (which, with its almost monomaniacal coverage of Major League baseball, does in fact, occasionally take on public service reporting). Three points struck home:

  • Three-fourths (of insiders polled) do not believe state lawmakers will seriously address the state’s problems.
  • Nearly 7 in 10 insiders do not believe state government will effectively address Florida’s problems.
  • Nearly 6 in 10 believe the state Legislature is less responsive to citizens than a generation ago.

Pitiful, you say? I’d say. We all say.

Let’s start playing the blame game:

Sure, let’s blame term limits (insiders do).

Sure, let’s blame empty ambition.

Sure, let’s blame youth (for a time, the average committee chairman in the Legislature was somewhere between 29 and 33).

(On that last point, Context Florida Publisher Peter Schorsch once made this point: What have many lawmakers done in life, besides plan student government council elections since the age of 12, then lo and behold, they take over the reins of a state with 20 million people.)

As one of those 20 million citizens, I believe I have a duty to offer lawmakers more than complaints.

The historian Barbara Tuchman once wrote that moral courage is the basis of good government and that the human tendency toward cowardice and folly makes bad government possible.

Here’s a possible answer: the right example.

Here’s a suggestion for lawmakers: between meetings with lobbyists, constituents, receptions at the Associated Industries of Florida, scotch in the private dining rooms of the Governor’s Club, or late nights at Clyde’s and Costello’s, lawmakers steal time to read William Gaynor’s “Some Speeches and Letters.”

Gaynor was a mayor of New York City at the turn of the 20th century.

Journalist H.L. Mencken said Gaynor nearly succeeded at an impossible goal: bring decent government to that ungovernable city.

He reformed the police, got rid of corruption, made government humane, and upon his death, received the gratitude of 20,000 New Yorkers who paid their respect to him as he lay in state.

Also, he was something rare among American politicians.

Mencken sums it up: Gaynor was a “great philosopher and a great soul.”

Once lawmakers read Gaynor’s pearls of practical wisdom, intelligence, humor, and grace, they will find in themselves the courage to move beyond complacency and mediocrity.

Gaynor’s letters and speeches are literature of the highest kind.

Among politicians, only Abe Lincoln surpasses. Routine matters of state do not usually carry literary distinction: Gaynor’s letters do.

Gaynor had a moral vision tied to modesty, a sense of the possible, a wary faith in human nature, an earnest desire to do good, and the joy found in true public service.

Lawmakers must recover that sense of joy, which is, really, the pride and honor in serving the people of Florida, not their ambition. It’s crucial for the state’s future.

***

Chris Timmons is a native Floridian, columnist, and fellow with the James Madison Institute. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

 

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