Monday, April 26, 2010

Congressional twiddle-deeing

By Don Klein

One of the first jobs I was assigned as a member of a New York congressman’s staff was to write a speech for the annual observance of "Captive Nations Week." I had never heard of the subject and decided research was necessary before putting hand to typewriter.

This was back in 1962. John F. Kennedy was president. I had just finished a five year stint at The Baltimore Sun and was now a proud staff member of the national legislature in the seat of the most powerful government in the world. I walked with a lilt in my step. I was among the privilege few who worked on Capitol Hill.

I now realize I also was young and foolish to think such things meant anything.

My experience of writing remarks about this "all-important" Captive Nations Week, which was to devour hours of my time and ended up with my boss putting it into the Congressional Record under his name, is a story of how Washington spins its wheels on useless work just to provide for preposterous constituent pandering. In the end the copy that went into the record was not even mine.

I learned that captive nations was the phraseology established in 1959 to describe nations under Soviet domination during the Cold War. For those just emerging from caves I remind them that the Soviet Union dissolved about two decades ago and countries it once controlled, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and so on, are now free and no longer are under foreign domination.
Yet today we still observe Captive Nations Week in Congress. Allegedly it continues to describe nations under undemocratic regimes.

But what does the observation actually do to help these countries, wherever they may be? Nothing significant. It is all political eyewash.

Still every year hundreds of congressional staff members compose glowing comments about the needs and aspirations of dominated countries who, despite congressional concern to the contrary, are no longer dominated. Does that make sense when there are so many pressing issues for Congress to be concerned with?

Don’t let that bother you though. If they scrapped captive nations week today, there would be plenty of other meaningless, time consuming commemorative weeks, days and months to keep them busy doing essentially nothing. There still remains the Save Your Vision, National Hurricane Preparedness, National Safe Boating, National School Lunch, National Character Counts and National Family weeks.

Also a sprinkling of national months consecrated by Congress every year and signed into existence by the president: National Donate Life in April, Older Americans in May, Mental Health Awareness in May, Great Outdoors in June and National Family Care-givers in November, to name just a handful.

Most of these were established at varying times over the past century and continue almost automatically every year. It reminds me of US troops stationed in Europe and Asia after World War II. Originally there was good reason for them to be there. The post-war world was in shambles, life was out-of-control and there was a need for the stabilizing force of the American army.

But that was sixty-five years ago. Since then Europe has been rebuilt, the war-torn nations are on their feet again, they have no real need for our troops, but they remain on guard (against who, for what?) more than six decades later. Once government starts something it is hard to stop.

There is a humbling end to the story about the nonsensical captive nations speech I prepared for my boss, a Republican named Seymour Halpern, a liberal back in those ancient times when there were still moderates in that party. Although cut in the political mold of famous New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Halpern often sounded more like Senator Claghorn. As I already stated I knew diddle about captive nations so I did the routine maneuver of calling the Library of Congress reference department for help. Shortly I had a ton of material delivered to my desk.

It didn’t take long to realize that declaring support for these unfortunate people was all talk and no action. It made the ethnic minorities inside America representing these foreign groups feel better, but it produced no tangible effect. Everyone knew it and still they wasted time on it.

The script that I finally came up with was, to my opinion, far superior to any of the prattle that had gone before on this subject that I found in the files of the Library of Congress. Apparently I took the matter seriously while none of my predecessors did.

Halpern was not even going to read the statement from the floor of the House. He would follow the procedure designed by Congress to disguise the work of its members by dropping it in the hopper and having it printed into the record as if he actually made the speech on the floor.

The worst part of it was when I got my copy of the Congressional Record the next day, I looked up Halpern’s official comments and was shocked to find he did not use a word of what I prepared for him. He placed instead his previous year’s bland statement into the record. Then I checked our files and discovered that it was the same remarks he made since 1959, three years earlier.

I was dismayed and thought I failed to produce adequate work for the man, when his long time secretary offered solace. "Once he finds an acceptable formula he doesn’t change it," she explained. I learned that his first insipid remarks on captive nations received plaudits from the ethnic voters in his district and that was that.

Then why did he ask me to write a new message? I figure that’s the Congressional version of twiddle-dee, twiddle-dum.

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