It's three o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon, and the honors seminar in government and politics at the University of Maryland is about to begin.
At the undergraduate library in College Park, 10 students are seated around a rectangular table. In the class, there is an ambiance both of mutual respect and informality as the professor enters the conference room. Heavyset, with appropriately disheveled white hair, shirt open at the collar and baggy sweater, he somehow fits the popular sterotype of what a college professor should be.
The professor is former Montgomery County Executive James P. Gleason, and he is bringing to the University of Maryland the same message he trumpeted a year ago, when he stepped down after eight frustrating years at the helm of county government:
Government just doesn't work any more.
"It's incredible what's happening in government in the United States. The government has forgotten the people because it's just gotten so damn big. Nobody can get anything done and nobody can relate to anyone else because the government is trying to do everything," says Gleason.
Shortly before leaving office last December, Gleason summoned the press to share his reflections on two terms as Montgomery County's cheif executive.
"Government," he said, "is like Theatre of the Absurd," and meetings of the County Council were exercises in "nonsense spoken softly." He had been known to bury his head in his hands at meetings, moaning, "I don't think I can take much more of this crap." By the end of his second term, he had come to view government as a "disaster in which nobody decides anything because everybody is part of the act."
Gleason has not modified his views in the last year, he says, and part of his reason for teaching is the "hope that I can interest some young people in public service careers" and that one of them might help change the system.
He is glad to be out of the hurly-burly of government after 27 years of off-and-on public service. Now he leads a more contemplative life, spending days preparing his classes, and writing a play and a book which will examine "the realities of political life." He spent last semester at the John F. Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard where, among other things, he worked out the basis for his seminar at Maryland, which he calls "Decay in Federalism."
"His thesis is that people have no confidence in government. It's not working the way it should be," says Barbara Curry, a sophomore and one of the students in the seminar.
Says Gleason, "It's pretty much based on my own experience in government."
Reading for the course includes two classic 19th century studies of American government, "Democracy in America" by Alexis de Tocqueville and "American Commonwealth" by James Bryce. But the seminar also includes appearances by "mystery guests" such as former Maryland congressman Newton Steers and a staffer from the George Bush presidential campaign.
By the end of the course, students will be required to write a paper exploring the deficiencies of government as it is now and suggesting ways in which it might be improved.
"You look for a government to be efficient and get things done, but you also want it to be down close to the people," says Charles Steinberg, a senior and another member of the class. "The problem is when you get down close to the people, it's hard to get things done."
Guiding the discussions, Gleason assumes an avuncular, Mr. Chips-like attitude towards his students. He uses first names, and knows where everyone is from.
A list of questions for discussion is distributed at the beginning of every class. During one session, the questions ranged over subjects from the wisdom of laws permitting initiative, referendum and recall petitions in state and local governments, to state constitutions that are too long and too inclusive, to the relationship between local, state and federal governments.
He doesn't try to impose his views on the class, but on the other hand he doesn't hide them either.
"I'm just trying to open your minds a little," he says. "Keep in mind it's the people we're talking about. Everybody wants peace and everybody wants prosperity for themselves and everyone else. The question is what system can deliver that?"
They discuss the questions of initiative, referendum and recall in state and local governments, and most of the students seem to think it's a good idea for citizens to have such options.
"Let's face it," says Gleason. "Initiative and referendum are public expressions of 'no confidence' in the legislature. It's a taking away of legislative power."
Nevertheless, in a straw ballot the students vote overwhelmingly in favor of initiative and referendum for state and local governments, but against them for the federal government.
"I have a fundamental problem as to why you people are so strong on these local control measures but just the opposite on the federal side," says Gleason. "If it's good enough for Annapolis, why isn't it good enough for Washington?"
They talk about the tendency of state constitutions to be lengthy and verbose.
"What is the harm," asks Gleason, "in including in a constitutional document provisions that are generally proper subjects of legislation?"
He answers his own question.
"Over the years, the states have loaded up their constitutions with so many provisions that they are unworkable. When you put something in a constitution, it locks you in. It takes a tremendous effort to get it out."
Unpredictable as ever, Gleason does not always follow a set pattern in running his classes.
During a discussion of federal-state relations, he interjected suddenly, "As a matter of fact, why don't we just get rid of states? You wouldn't want to keep them around just because they're nice to remember. That would be a pretty expensive remembrance."
Someone in the class suggested such a move might be burdensome to the federal government. "You would have to ask them to step in and fill the state functions," said the student.
"They've been doing that for 20 years anyway, "Gleason snorted.
There was more discussion and finally someone suggested it might be a good idea to do away with county governments.
"Aaaarrrgh," screamed the former county executive of Montgomery County.