Jewish World Review Oct. 4, 2001 / 17 Tishrei, 5762
John H. Fund
How politicians leave office often tells us as much about them as their job performance. Mr. Giuliani's flirtation with upsetting the election laws will soon be forgotten in light of his magnificent performance in the wake of the World Trade Center attack. Other politicians confirm good impressions about their careers when they gracefully give up power or confirm dark ones with their relentless desire to cling to power at any price.
This week saw an example of each. The Associated Press reports that Rep. Gary Condit has begun collecting petition signatures in preparation for a re-election run. His longtime political consultant Richard Ross says a re-election bid is "a real possibility." Indeed, the congressman has just taken his $130,000 condo off the Washington real estate market, a sign that he may have decided he will need a Beltway address in the future.
Mr. Condit's scandal, involving interference with law enforcement probing the disappearance of Chandra Levy, was blown off the front pages by the terrorist attacks. Since then he scored an appointment to the new Homeland Security Subcommittee of the House Intelligence Committee, a move sanctioned by House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, who oversees Democratic appointments on committees. Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia says the appointment "is somebody's idea of a bad joke." But it will no doubt convince some new voters in Mr. Condit's reconfigured district that he is still a major Washington player and an effective congressman.
In July I was almost alone in predicting that Mr. Condit might survive the Levy imbroglio. In my column at the time, I wrote that he has "16 months to let memories fade before he must face all of the district's voters again. This assumes, of course, that there are no other dramatic revelations, and in particular that nothing ties him to Ms. Levy's disappearance surfaces." Some revelations were made, but Mr. Condit looks to still be following the Bill Clinton playbook and hoping that voters simply grow tired and "move on."
So far, no one is challenging him in the Democratic primary and his new district is some eight points more Democratic than his old one, increasing his chances that he could survive a general election. His chances certainly are better than they were four weeks ago, and now it's unlikely that anything else will surface to link him to the Levy disappearance.
But not all politicians are as selfish and shameless as Mr. Condit. Last year, Pennsylvania's Lt. Gov. Mark Schweiker announced that for family reasons he would not try to succeed his boss, Gov. Tom Ridge, when term limits left the seat open next year. Then everything in Pennsylvania politics changed when President Bush named Mr. Ridge as head of a new agency in charge of homeland security. Mr. Schweiker will take the reins in Harrisburg tomorrow.
His instant change in status to that of an incumbent governor fueled speculation that he would seek the office in his own right next year. Nothing doing, the stubborn Dutchman told an audience of GOP activists last week. "I intend to keep faith with my family and I'm not going to be a candidate anytime soon. Kathy and I are going to watch our kids grow up. I will keep faith with Mike Fisher"--the GOP candidate he has endorsed. "And above all, I will keep faith with the people of Pennsylvania."
Mr. Schweiker's remarkable decision confounded political pundits across the state. House Majority Leader John Perzel, a canny Philadelphia Republican, wasn't convinced. "He could still change his mind when he's governor," he said.
It's not likely. Rumors are circulating that some dark secret might have been the impetus for Mr. Schweiker's refusal to seek political power, but there is zero evidence of that. There is speculation he will be named to the cushy job of Philadelphia Convention Center director, but no one believes that's better than being the state's chief executive. It's probably best just to take the man at his word: He wants to continue to be able to coach his sons in basketball and to be able to attend his daughter's school plays.
Political power is seductive, and few men can fully avoid its charms. Some become dedicated public servants, like Rudy Giuliani, fully alive only when they are in charge. That makes it difficult for them to let go and also makes them become dominating figures. Such people often rub voters the wrong way, until a World Trade Center disaster makes them appreciated.
Other politicians, like Gary Condit, are simple careerists. An elected official since he was 23, Condit has now been in office for three decades. He has had no career outside politics and few prospects for gainful employment should he leave it. No wonder he is so desperate to linger in the corridors of Congress.
Then there are people like Mark Schweiker. Not a particularly
remarkable public official, or a great leader, he nonetheless embodies
an American ideal articulated by Alexis de Tocqueville during his travels
in this country in the 1830s: citizen politicians who serve their time in
government and then return to private life to live under the laws they
wrote for others. Mr. Schweiker may confuse and confound his fellow
pols, but I suspect many average voters understand and appreciate his
decision to not hold on to the brass ring. If only more elected officials
followed his example and viewed their offices more as public service
than stepping stones in a lifelong political
08/24/01: Lauch Out: Who'll replace Jesse Helms?