PHILIP SCHRAG has attempted the impossible: to write about a tedious blip in American history -- the D.C. statehood convention of 1982 -- and make it interesting. It is the insider's story gone nowhere.
That is not to understate his herculean effort. He lays out a consistent and massively detailed account of the 90-day convention. He employs an effective device of alternating chapters of objective narrative with chapters of personal feelings, insights and behind-the-scenes maneuvering. He includes a copy of the 18,000-word constitution written by the convention and provides a handy lineup of its 45 delegates.
But it is a book destined, not so much by its author as its subject matter, to appeal to a small public: political scientists, legal scholars and statehood diehards. It is a monumental rehash of established record spliced with private ruminations rivaling in historic significance the esthetics of Mao Tse-Tung or the moral theology of John Riggins.
Despite the promise in its title, Schrag's book provides little that is new, especially to home rule loyalists who have followed the District of Columbia's uncertain course toward statehood in the last decade. And while Schrag delves into the real -- and sometimes even dramatic -- racial tensions that beset the convention, the general reader may become lost in the fog of parliamentary procedure, vote counts and unfamiliar delegate names that envelops the book. A
S ONE of the delegates to
the convention, Schrag recounts his experiences
from his initial decision as a statehood advocate to seek a delegate seat in the 1981 city elections to his final decision the next spring to abstain from voting for the document he had helped write, a document he says contained irresponsible sections.
He describes with dismay how the District of Columbia and its power brokers turned their backs on what they viewed as a "quixotic venture." Given a paltry $150,000 by the City Council, the delegates scraped by with borrowed furniture, staff shortages and meager office supplies. Most of the city's public office holders, judges and lobbyists boycotted the convention. Much of the press ignored it or scoffed from the sidelines.
Schrag learned that, as a lawyer, a professor and a member of the white minority in the convention, it was difficult to know how to function. He was one of the few delegates in this populist gathering of community activitsts and grass roots organizers with experience in parliamentary procedure, drafting legislation and technical writing. He was anxious to lend his skills but encountered mistrust and resentment from black delegates.
The convention split into unofficial black and white caucuses, with the blacks attempting secretly to control convention committees and officers and the whites reeling in naive consternation at such chutzpah. But the black caucus was not all-inclusive. Divisions developed, especially between the followers of convention president Charles I. Cassell and City Councilwoman Hilda Mason. Schrag and the other whites coalesced around Mason and her following. From there, Schrag was able to float out constitutional proposals and amendments through trusted black delegates.
Schrag's book reveals a few additional footnotes not generally known before. A threatened strike by convention staff, unpaid for weeks and angry at poor working conditions, was averted when money was found for them. The judges of the D.C. Court of Appeals turned down invitations to address the convention because some invitations addressed them incorrectly as "Superior Court" judges and gave them only four days' notice to appear. More important, Schrag writes, the judges did "not want to seem to endorse the idea of statehood by appearing to participate in the convention."
While Schrag and other moderates strove to keep the tone and substance of the constitutional document orthodox, the political adventurers of the convention -- socialists, a lone Communist and assorted hangers-on -- rammed through a number of provisions that were too rich for Schrag's blood. One barred both public and private discrimination against persons not only on the traditional grounds of race, color and sex but on grounds of "poverty" and "religion," raising in Schrag's mind the possibility that a church "might have to hire an atheist" and the new state might have to "permit indigents to ride without charge on the buses and subways."
Another provision guaranteed all persons an unequivocal "right to employment, or if unable to work, an income sufficient to meet basic human needs." In addition to jeopardizing the constitution's chances of survival in Congress, this provision could have "extraordinary tax consequences for the citizens of the new state," Schrag wrote.
As the convention neared its end, Schrag said he was "immensely sad. . . . Torn by my general sympathy for the project and my sense that a few clauses render the final product irresponsible, I . . . decided to abstain."