Columns » Outsider


Life in the bubble


A few weeks ago, an airline passenger named Helen Clark, in transit from New Zealand to Dubai, was stopped by security officials, briefly detained, searched and sent on her way.

And so what? It's happened to you, it's happened to me, and it happens to thousands of airline passengers every day -- just a mildly unattractive feature of life in the 21st century.

But Clark's case was a little unusual, since she's the Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Think about it. Here's a head of state, traveling on a commercial flight, neither demanding nor receiving any special treatment, and putting up with the same indignities that we all have to bear. Nor did she make a scene -- no indignant protests, no officious harrumphing. If anything, she was amused and pleased that the security officials offered special treatment to no one.

Let us contrast Clark's travel experiences with those of our own presidents, who, since John Kennedy's assassination 40 years ago, have lived in a wholly artificial world, sheltered, protected and strange. You have to go back a century or two to find similar rulers whose lives were so isolated and circumscribed -- maybe the Manchu emperors, sequestered in the forbidden city, or the last czars of Russia, utterly unaware of the real condition of their subjects.

To their credit, most of our presidents have struggled to get out of the bubble. Unhappily, their aides, underlings and advisers seek not only to protect their bosses, but also to keep them from the slightest unpleasantness. That's probably why President Bush, who so laudably visited both bereaved families here at Fort Carson and our soldiers in Iraq, didn't address the British Parliament during his recent visit -- his handlers didn't dare expose him to a bunch of unruly, disrespectful foreign lawmakers.

And why should they? Being president is an incredibly tough job; why would you want to put your boss in an unpleasant situation, create a lot of bad press, and risk your own job just to please the editorial page of the New York Times?

Given that the American president is the No. 1 target of every terrorist and/or armed crackpot in the world, there's no way that he/she can really escape from the bubble. That said, life in the bubble is unlikely to improve either one's mental health or one's ability to make good decisions.

Why, then, do so many of our own petty pols seek to create their own bubbles? Just look around -- right here in Colorado Springs, our elected officials do their best to avoid/ignore the folks who elected 'em. When, for example, the mayor gives his "State of the City" address, he does so to a bunch of fat cats at a downtown hotel.

But that's just a speech -- the county commissioners, as you may remember, decided to borrow big bucks for a new jail right after the voters had specifically rejected the project. And just days after being elected, the new majority on the District 11 school board moved to limit public comment at board meetings -- talk about fast learners!

There's nothing new about all of this -- pretentious egomania has always been part of politics. But consider this: A dozen years ago it was possible to run for city council, spend less than 10 grand on your campaign, get no endorsements from the power brokers, and win! Today, successful campaigns cost several times that, and the power people -- i.e., the realtors, the Home Builders Association, the developers, and the chamber of commerce -- pretty much control council elections. So if you're a newly elected council member/school board member/county commissioner and you realize that you were elected thanks to several score successful, amiable and eminently reasonable folks, why shouldn't you want to hang out with 'em? Unlike your regular ol' voter, they'll never be demanding, pestiferous, ignorant or visibly angry. Stay in the bubble, do what they want, and you'll be just fine.

But every once in a while, the voters emerge from their usual torpor and make themselves heard. That's why Margaret Radford switched her vote on the latest health insurance proposal before council, a proposal that many conservatives saw as putting the stamp of approval on same-sex relationships. Radford, unbeholden to the power structure, listened to the voters and acted accordingly. She listened to her constituents -- something that many politicians, cushioned by the power of oligarchies large and small, no longer have to do.

I didn't much like Radford's switcheroo, but, come to think of it, I'd rather have old-fashioned, timorous politicians caving in to the voters than the newfangled ideologues; stubborn, principled and unresponsive. Because cowardly, pandering pols would be afraid to raise taxes, double utility bills, or -- far higher up the food chain -- start unnecessary wars.

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