An important senator is hit by a truck and dies on the street. He arrives at the pearly gates and is greeted by St. Peter.
"Well," says St. Peter, "we seldom see a member of Congress up here, and we've decided that you must spend one day in hell and one in heaven and then choose where to spend eternity."
And with that, St. Peter escorts him to the elevator to hell. When the doors open below, he finds himself on a cool, green golf course. (It looks a lot like St. Andrews in Scotland.) His friends and old colleagues greet him with warmth and bonhomie, eager to reminisce about the good times they had getting rich at taxpayer expense and fattening their pet pigs. After a round of golf and a massage, they dine on lobster, caviar and champagne. Satan turns out to be a very friendly fellow, with laughter and jokes.
Soon the 24 hours pass and the senator returns to heaven, where he spends another amiable 24 hours, playing the harp, floating from cloud to cloud, admiring angels who look a lot like Marilyn Monroe, singing all the many verses of "Amazing Grace," and enjoying the pleasures of discipline and restraint. St. Peter finally tells him it's time to choose.
"Well," the senator says, "heaven has been delightful, but I think I would be better off in hell. They're my kind of people."
St. Peter escorts him to the elevator for his final descent into hell. When the doors open this time, he finds himself in a barren land of waste, rubble and garbage. His friends, in rags, are picking up garbage, stuffing it into ever bigger bags as rubbish continually falls from above.
"I don't understand," the frightened senator stammers. "Yesterday there was a golf course, a clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar and drank champagne at restaurants that looked a lot like the Palm and Charlie Palmer's, and had a high old time. Now there's nothing but garbage and my friends look miserable."
"Ah," says Satan, "yesterday we were campaigning. Today, you voted."
No matter which party governs, it can always expect to be aggressively pursued by bribery, debauchery and corruption. Temptation trumps good intentions when the elected become more concerned with holding on to power than pleasing the people who put them in office.
It's remarkable how many Republicans and conservative friends of Republicans are not only not wasting time on regrets about how the elections turned out, but are actually satisfied with what happened. A lot of the people who put the Republicans in power think the party had a hard lesson coming.
They observed the sleaziness at the center of congressional perks and power, the indulgent scandals of sex and money. Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, concedes that corruption was the most costly issue. A lot of congressmen forgot why they were sent here. "It ought not to be continuing your power in office," he told an interviewer on the morning after, "but what you are trying to accomplish and what you are trying to reform." (Now he tells us.)
Many conservatives believe Iraq is better for being free of the brutality and lethal mischief of Saddam Hussein, and the prospect of the trouble he could have made for the West, but they're unhappy about how the Republicans, beginning with the president, are prosecuting the war. They have their fingers crossed that exchanging Donald Rumsfeld for Robert Gates will be more than merely a change of shirts. Conservatives are happy that Joe Lieberman defeated the "What, me worry?" candidate in Connecticut and are counting on him to persuade some of his Democratic colleagues to begin worrying about the consequences of writing off Iraq and the Middle East.
Now the Democrats have to be responsible. They won with an anything-but-Bush agenda, and that only works during a campaign. That some of the newly minted Democratic congressmen are moderate-to-conservative is a cause for hope. They promised fiscal responsibility and restraint, but so had the Republicans who were thrown out last Tuesday. Nancy Pelosi promises bipartisanship without rancor. Easier said than done; the Republicans didn't deliver on that, either.
But change offers fresh faces and fresh opportunities. Will the new Congress set higher standards for itself? Or will the lure of luxurious golf courses, long lunches at pricey watering holes and the high life on the taxpayer's dime corrupt them with the accoutrements of power? Anyone who has been in Washington very long understands that betting on a politician is, like second marriages, a triumph of hope over experience. But we must hope.