Throw the rascals out?
Put a 12-year limit on professional politicians?
Dump all the incumbents?
Sounds fine -- unless you know one of them.
I've known a shy, earnest, thoughtful, bright man named Bob Kastenmeier since 1958. He came from a tiny place called Watertown, Wis. He was a small-town lawyer who became a 32-year congressman. What he really became was a tribune of the people, a pillar of the republic -- but the republic, I guess, thought he was just an "incumbent."
Who is Bob Kastenmeier?
In 1945 he was a young lieutenant who saw Hiroshima's ashes just weeks after the bombing -- and went into politics largely to make sure it didn't happen again.
In 1958 he was a young lawyer who stuck his hands in his jacket pockets whenever he gave a campaign speech -- so people couldn't see that they were shaking.
He wasn't supposed to win -- there had been only one term of a Democratic congressman from that district since the Civil War -- and the sophisticates groaned when he criticized a very popular president for sending U.S. troops to Lebanon.
But the people thought he made sense, and he did win in a very close race.
Then he came to Washington and started insisting that the United States should not be planning to use biological weapons. When the Army Chemical Corps said they were "nonlethal," he did the research to show it was anthrax and bubonic plague they were preparing. And he did something unheard of: he met with Quaker pacifists who were walking a hopeless picket line day after day after day at Ft. Detrick, Md., where bubonic plague was made. When a Chemical Corps general offered to give the congressman all the classified information to explain why the program was so crucial, he replied: "General, thank you, but I'm aware that once I look at that information I'll never be able to speak about the program in public again."
Speaker Sam Rayburn snarled that he'd have to learn to go along if he wanted to get along, and the sophisticates groaned and sneered again when he voted to end the peacetime draft. But the people in the bars back home crowded 'round and thanked him.
He was hungry for ideas. David Riesman and Paul Goodman, Jim Warburg and Marcus Raskin, historians from Wisconsin and Gar Alperovitz, and the sit-in kids from SNCC and the patient Quakers -- he listened to them all, in a day when most politicians thought ideas were impractical.
He lobbied the House, against President Kennedy's wishes, to create the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. He was only a sophomore congressman, but the bill got passed.
And all through 1963, when the Kennedy administration was dragging its feet on civil rights, he was gently pushing the Judiciary Committee -- a creative idea here, a legal innovation there. When the Freedom Democrats from Mississippi showed up at the Democratic Convention in 1964, he listened to them and sat up all night arranging for his colleagues on the credentials committee to meet -- one by one -- with Fannie Lou Hamer and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
And all that time his hands kept on quivering in his coat pockets whenever he gave speeches. So far as I know, they never stopped.
Why did he lose after all the years? Maybe the problem was that tribunes of the people are supposed to be solemn and pompous, or TV stars, and Kastenmeier was certainly none of these. Maybe it was that he didn't snarl at his staff, didn't drive them mercilessly and rage about mistakes. No, when one just-hired staffer (me) made a mistake in a press release -- it made the Chemical Corps look even worse than it was -- he just swallowed and said, ''Write up a correction, and let me see it. We'll issue that. Better they make fun of us than we try to mislead them, even by mistake. And -- don't worry; it'll be okay.'' It was.
Maybe it was because he put in so many long hours on unglamorous issues such as copyrights, a matter to which he devoted months of effort with the aim of protecting historians' ability to let us know about our society. Maybe it was because he was so quiet about the good things he was doing.
Whatever happened to Bob Kastenmeier, it wasn't just an "incumbent" who lost that Wisconsin race after 32 years -- it it was a man who was a true representative in the finest sense of the word.
The writer served on Rep. Kastenmeier's staff from 1959 to 1961.