BEING A MORAL person of relatively sound mind, I do not approve of bribery, even of public officials. It is a bad thing to do, expensive and corrupting of the democratic process, not to mention those persons who serve that process. Still, it would not be all that bad if members of the Illinois legislature had, as alleged, been offered bribes to vote the Equal Rights Amendment. In fact, it would be wonderful.
I say this as a very jaded fellow. say this as a person who wasted years of life, sitting at press tables in state legislative committees, watching the same scene enacted over and over again. First the gentlemen of the ligislature would hear from the really important lobbyists. Then would come something I call "smile time." The ladies had arrived.
Invariably, the ladies were from some organization like the League of Women Voters or the American Association of University Women. A woman's name would be called, the chairman would smile and some lady would come to the witness table. She would be effusively welcomed, given such highfalutin courtesy that you would think either she was the queen of some foreign country or everyone was playing the ball scene in "Gone With the Wind."
The lady would take her seat. She would straighten her skirt and put her notes on the table, introduce both herself and her organization. Everyone would smile. The lady would begin to speak and then everyone, with the smiles still pasted on, would go to sleep sitting up. Nothing is as boring as good government.
For some reason, good government -- women's issues -- is considered funny, trivial, not important. Even so sane a journal as the New Republic recently referred to the League of Women Voters as a "do-gooder" organization, kind of backhanded compliment that is meant to mean that it is not very important. By and large, this is a term reserved for women, since men do not belong to do-gooder organizations unless they are liberals. The very worst thing, for some reason, is to be called a do-gooder liberal, as if the attempt to do good is worse than no attempt at all.
Somewhere in this category of sugary do-goodness falls the ERA. It is not only a liberal cause, a do-gooder cause, a good government cause, but a cause for and about women. If the appearance of a lady lobbyist is enough to bring smiles to the lips of a politician, someone lobbying on behalf of the ERA would bring him to the floor with laughter.To many politicians, it is a nonissue.
It is not like bridges or highways -- smelling of money and patronage. It is not something as concreate as an amendment to a building code or the question -- the crucial question -- of whether cosmetologists should be licensed -- an issue that came up every year when I covered the Maryland legislature. It is, alas, about a concept: equality.
Nothing puts politicians to sleep faster than a concept. It is the first thing thrown overboard when the waters get rough. You can forget it or ignore it or, best yet, trade it. And that, more often than not, is what happens to the ERA. It is not so much opposed (after all, the majority of Americans support it) as it is frittered away.
In Indiana one year, a member of the legislature said he would vote against ERA unless he was guaranteed by the White House that his hometown band could march in the Inaugural parade. He got his guarantee and the ERA got his voice.
Things might be different if the ERA were not a woman's issue, but it is. Things might also be different if the pro-ERA people could point to more than a handful of defeated politicians, and prove that they went down because they voted against the amendment. It can't be done.
But now, with the Illinois development, things might really be different. In one case, the alleged bribe was supposed to be $1,000, and in the other it was an alleged offer of campaign workers. Here we are talking of the body and soul of politics -- not something as silly as a concept.
Bribes might not be enough to get the ERA passed, but at least it would buy a certain kind of equality. For a thousand bucks, you can wipe a smile off any face.