It’s breathtakingly close to Election Day, when a minority of American voters will decide who controls Congress.
Democrats need 15 House and six Senate seats to wrest leadership from the Republicans, and politics are at a fever pitch – that would be “Potomac fever” pitch.
“Potomac fever” once stood for the condition that causes politicians to stay in the District of Columbia long past their service or effectiveness in official Washington.
Examples of former officeholders squiring new clients around old haunts are legion and always a bit poignant. Less common and sadder are the members of Congress who are no longer capable of making an extemporaneous speech or who are carried down the Hill feet first.
Over time, “Potomac fever” has become the catchphrase for the compulsion to seek office or otherwise take up residence in the vicinity of the wild river that runs through D.C.
The term has taken on an extra meaning, usually involving suicidal tendencies and October surprises.
Actually, this began in October 1974 when House Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur D. Mills, D-Ark., was involved in an incident where his
companion, Silver Slipper stripper Fanne Foxe, jumped into the Potomac’s Tidal Basin, near the Jefferson Memorial.
The antics of Mills and Foxe followed President Richard Nixon’s resignation by two months and were the self-inflicted October surprise at a time when Democrats had only to stand in place and whisper, “Watergate.”
The harbinger of this most recent wave of scandal, for me, was neither a political animal nor a party animal. Rather, last year’s October surprise was just a plain animal.
On Oct. 26, 2005, a young deer wandered out of the Potomac’s wooded banks and into two posh Georgetown boutiques, in northwest Washington, and started butting its head against a full-length mirror.
Park Police tranquilized the frightened deer. As they carried it out of the shop to release it in the woods, a crowd formed and began to chant, “Free Bambi, free Bambi.”
That occurrence seemed to portend a year that would be odd, eventful and pretty funny.
Almost exactly one year later, on Oct. 23, two deer jumped into the Tidal Basin, not far from where Foxe and Mills made their splash 32 years earlier. The nearly identical eight-point white-tailed bucks were being swept away by the river’s strong undercurrent.
The D.C. Fire Department and Park Police set out in rafts to save the bucks. They tranquilized the exhausted bucks and delivered them safely ashore near the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.
In between these two deer incidents, then-Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, first appeared in court in his home state. After that October 2005 surprise, Michael Scanlon of Team Abramoff copped a plea and started naming names. Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., resigned from the House in November.
Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty on Jan. 3 to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials, and he started singing. In February, Vice President Dick Cheney shot a trial lawyer he mistook for a killer quail.
The hits just keep on coming, and not everyone who’s going to the slammer is even a headline yet.
Republicans today are self-destructing at an amazing rate. Democratic election warriors are almost holding their collective breath in order to avoid making mistakes. The two things the battle-weary Dems say most often are: 1) “My heart’s been broken too many times to even hope for victory,” and 2) “Please, October surprises only for the Repubs.”
Republicans in Washington seem to be a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of their colleagues who are copping pleas and telling on each other.
The most recent crop in the latter category are testifying in the House ethics investigation into the matter of who knew ex-Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., was hitting on congressional pages, in writing, and why didn’t they do something to stop it.
House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and Rep. Thomas A. Reynolds, R-N.Y., say they told House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., about Foley’s electronic messages a long time ago. Hastert says, oh, no, they didn’t.
Their staffers are testifying, too. While this can be bad news for a boss or two, it almost always is a sign of a fading political future for those who don’t have an actual vote in Congress.
The ethics committee – formally, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct – protected the prior Majority Leader, DeLay, from a full-fledged investigation in the period leading up to the formal indictment on charges that he now faces in a Texas court.
The ethics chair, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., is known in Indian country for pushing a bill that would make the world safer for grave robbers and those who would abuse dead Indians. His proposed changes to repatriation law would turn deceased American Indians into property and specimens to be studied, a nightmarish situation that was changed by the 1990 human rights act.
Hastings never bothered to ask his constituent, the Yakama Indian Nation, what it thought of his amendment to the law they worked for decades to achieve. His bill is opposed unanimously by the members of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and, as of Oct. 6, by the National Congress of American Indians.
I’ve been in 11 states in recent weeks: Arizona, California, Colorado, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington. The politics are the same in each. Candidates are sniping and clawing away at each other – mostly at the “liar, liar, pants on fire” level of political discourse – all so they can work in Washington toward a civil society whose absence they bemoan.
Wherever I traveled, I heard Rush Limbaugh, political radio screamer. He now says actor Michael J. Fox is faking his Parkinson’s symptoms in political ads about which candidates did and didn’t work for stem cell research that might speed up discovery of cures for diseases including Parkinson’s.
I can’t think of anyone in American politics with less standing to evaluate anyone else’s use of meds than Limbaugh, who is a confessed drug addict and an enormous pest. Politicians who benefit from and pander to Limbaugh and his loyal “dittoheads” deserve to lose their races.
The animal world knows how to deal with pests. One heroine is the ladybug. A mid-October surprise in D.C. was an intense infestation of the Asian lady beetle, which first was seen in Washington in the 1990s and has become a pest herself.
Millions of the beautiful red and black ladybugs moved into homes and offices and died indoors, rather than doing their invaluable job of pest control outside. Their actions this year are roughly the equivalent of Foxe and the bucks jumping into waters they couldn’t swim.
I’ve been humming the familiar nursery rhyme for days, the one started by European farmers as a prayer for pest-free crops: “Ladybug, Ladybug, fly away home. Your house is on fire and your children are gone.”
I know we’re supposed to look to the animals and winged creatures for lessons, but I can’t tell what all of this means, at least for the political and people world.
After all, we’re dealing with ladybugs with a taste for pests in Asia; a song from a religion and slave system of Europe; a deer who’s lonely or maybe just a shopper; and bucks who are suicidal or competitive or who dared each other to swim the river.
Perhaps they – like the corrupt, self-indulgent pols and the high-minded public servants alike – all have “Potomac fever,” which will pass for many after Election Day. For others, that’s when it will really start to take hold.
<i>Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.