Even 2,300 years ago the Greek comedian Aristophanes could draw laughs by quipping that politicians lurked under every stone.
Throughout the centuries, pols have been called knaves, pimps and devils, and that is leaving out the worst of it.
Politicans often don't fare any better these days: A recent Washington Post poll showed that 70 percent of those interviewed believe congressmen are liars. More than 60 percent believe they are crooks as well.
Why then do people go into politics? It is not because the jobs are easy.
Especially for local officials, there are thousands of hours of meetings, hundreds of bureaucratic details, hosts of fervent citizens. The decisions politicians make are close to home--the destruction of a neighborhood, the closing of a school--and stir strong passions. Sometimes, says the outgoing chairman of the Prince George's County Council, Gerard McDonough, "The people have their hands at your throat."
McDonough recalled one meeting with citizens about a road widening. He had brought his children along. Emotions ran high, and the crowd turned ugly. "I'm sitting there with 200 people hating my guts. . . . My kids were upset," he said. One lady became so distraught she came up to McDonough and wept. "The evening," he said, "stands out in my mind how bad it can get."
Politicians spend so much time away from home and family that one observer of the Montgomery County school board said she was certain the main criterion for board members was that they were escaping a spouse they didn't like.
Boredom and frustration abound. One former Montgomery County executive, James P. Gleason, a blunt Irish Republican, took to calling local government the Theater of the Absurd before he finally quit, stymied by officials' continuous "reinvention of the wheel."
Gleason gave a rare glimpse of the inner life of a politican a few years ago. At a meeting about sewers, the debate as usual seemed endless. Finally Gleason did what every politician often must ache to do: he buried his head in his hands and moaned, "I just don't think I can take much more of this crap."
Even those who achieve rather high political office sometimes find themselves wondering why they bothered.
For instance, former Maryland governor Blair Lee III, who was catapulted into the governor's mansion after his boss, Marvin Mandel, left in disgrace, was swept away with campaign fever when he got a chance to run for his own term as governor. But after losing to Harry Hughes, Lee admitted to a reporter: "I'm beginning to wonder whether I really wanted to win. . . . It is a tough, cutthroat game, and if you want it bad, you've got to be willing to do things that have to be done. I never was very good at the jugular stuff."
Despite these unattractive features of political life, 254 Montgomery and Prince George's candidates this fall paid their primary filing fee, worked their hands raw, and wore their shoes thin for a chance at it. A chance to win a job with enough abuse to make them feel like Don Rickles' straight man. Why?
Some echo Winfield M. Kelly, a former Prince George's County executive, who said: "I always felt I was making a major contribution to the community. I felt it was a noble position, one of the great trusts."
Karen Kuker-Kihl, a Prince George's special education teacher and Democratic activist who lost a bid for House of Delegates in the last primary, points out that politics is crucial to society. "The number of people not registered to vote is outrageous. It's the basic minimum level you can be to keep democracy working," she said.
Besides, she added, her mother always told her "you have no right to complain if you don't do something about it."
But McDonough, a Democrat who has played the game in Prince George's for eight years, is more cynical. "Don't mistake it," he said. "For those who have gotten involved in it, it's the adult substitution for competitive sports."
McDonough said that highbrows talk of issues and platforms, "but that's veneer. It quickly becomes a personal ego contest. You might as well be on the football field or the squash court. The highs are real high--the lows real low. . . . Few will admit it, but that's what it is."
"It's an ego trip, sure," said Maryland State Sen. Victor Crawford, retiring dean of the Montgomery County delegation to Annapolis.
That trip came for Crawford when he as a politician could do something for people that they couldn't do for themselves: Can't get your street fixed? Call Crawford. "For me, it's exciting to know--everybody says you can't fight city hall, but I can call the county executive or Harry Hughes himself and they'll answer the phone," he said.
It is ironic that being a politician, a job often talked about with disdain, still carries such an aura of status. Crawford attributes this at least in part to the public's awe of "stars." Even a TV weatherman who does nothing but read someone else's metereological charts, Crawford points out, is stopped on the street for his autograph. "It's crazy," Crawford said.
"Being a politician is like being a movie star," he said. "You get the perks. Lobbyists wine and dine you. People ask you to speak."
To be fair, though, most people don't get involved for the glamor, at least not at first. Council Chairman McDonough fell into his first political aide job when he was just out of the Marines looking for work in the early 1970s. Kelly fell under the spell of political activism of the late '60s, and decided he wanted to serve.
Many people, however, get hooked when they are fighting city hall from the outpost of a neighborhood group or PTA, says Edmund Rovner, longtime pol and now aide to Montgomery County executive Charles Gilchrist. One woman, he recalls, felt so abused by the Montgomery County school board when she sought its help for her disabled son that she ran against members of the board in the next election and won.
Another school board member, Marian Greenblatt, now the guiding force of the board's current conservative majority, decided to run after she visited her local school. "The teachers weren't teaching," she said. "The students were out in the halls. There were no textbooks. The school was really falling apart with the attitude of do your own thing."
Others catch the political bug when they're helping someone else to win and suddenly realize they can do just as well themselves.
Once that initial mental hurdle is overcome, politics becomes an addiction few people can resist. "I found a part-time commitment quickly became a full-time commitment, and then an overcommitment," said Kelly, who is now president of Storer Cable TV. "You do that to the exclusion of everything else--family, business . . . ."
When Kelly was county executive, he said, he frequently worked 85- and 90-hour weeks. "It was not uncommon for me to have a breakfast meeting at 6:00, at 7:00, at 8:00, and then go to work at 9:00."
During that time, Kelly said, his family "lost time and direction. . . . I have a strong wife. The stresses we were able to ride out, but I believe a lot of families don't survive the stress of politics."
Crawford, who is leaving the Maryland legislature after 16 years, said he finally had to break the habit. "I have two children in college, and I can no longer afford the luxury of being a part-time legislator and a part-time lawyer." He is still suffering withdrawal, he admits, but in consolation, he now finally has the time to take care of a dog.
McDonough's political career also ended this fall, when the voters spoke in the primary. He is philosophical about the loss. "The voters have to rip the needle out," he quips. "You never take it out yourself."
"The hole," he adds with a chuckle, "is almost healed."
But though he intends to practice law in private life and not run for office again, he admits he learned this much in eight years in politics: "Never say never."