There isn’t a staffer on the Hill who won’t tell you 90% of members are driven by their own needs, wants and interests, not America’s. The former defense secretary, Bob Gates, has written a whole book about it, and the passages in which he speaks most plainly read like a cry from the heart. The chaplain of the Senate, Barry Black, made news a few months ago because he’d taken to praying that the character of our representatives be improved. “Save us from the madness,” he prayed one morning last October. “We acknowledge our transgressions, our shortcomings, our smugness, our selfishness.” The single most memorable thing I ever heard from a Wall Streeter was from one of its great men, who blandly explained to me one day why certain wealthy individuals were taking an action that was both greedy and personally inconvenient to them. “Everyone wants more,” he said, not in a castigating way but as one explains certain essentials to a child.
People in public life have become more grasping, and less embarrassed by it. But the odd thing, the destabilizing thing as you think about it, is that we’re in a crisis. We’ve been in it since at least 2008 and the crash, and the wars. We are in unprecedented trouble. Citizens know this. It’s why they buy guns. They see unfixable America around them, they think it’s all going to fall apart. In Washington (and New York) they huff and puff their disapproval: Those Americans with their guns, they’re causing a lot of trouble. But Americans think they’re in trouble because their leaders are too selfish to face challenges that will do us in.
What’s most striking is that in a crisis, you don’t expect business as usual. You expect something better from leaders, you expect them to try to meet the moment.
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