Saturday, December 14, 2013

Reflections on an Eventful Week in My City

I’m beginning to understand what it means to be from Cleveland.

Growing up a few hundred miles away, I never heard anything nice about that city.   Its baseball stadium was known as “The Mistake by the Lake,” and that name soon came to be used for the city itself.   I’d hear jokes like “First prize is a week’s trip in Cleveland.  What’s second prize?  Two weeks in Cleveland.”  And surely, if someone admitted to being from Cleveland while visiting other metropolitan areas, he could be sure of one thing: his listeners would have had absolutely nothing nice to associate with that town.  Rather, their thoughts might extend to a number of sad images: (a) the city’s default on its financial obligations, (b) burning waterways, (c) lousy weather, (d) the lack of natural beauty, (e) the paucity of well-known historical monuments, (f) hapless sports teams, or (g) being simply a boring, “flyover” part of the country.   Oh yeah, and then there’s (h) – all of the above.
Yup, back in the day, it was tough to be proud of your city if you were from Cleveland.  But I think that’s changed somewhat.  Cleveland won the competition to host the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Thanks to global warming, it doesn’t even seem that cold any more.  The Cuyahoga River hasn’t been set on fire in decades, and now it’s Detroit and not Cleveland that is linked with fiscal distress.   Sure the Cleveland sports teams still lose, but at least their fans can always claim Ohio State, which wins a whole lot more than most states’ flagship universities.

Today, I would argue, Cleveland has passed the baton.   And I know precisely who has acquired it.   It has made its way east to another city associated with financial debt, lousy sports teams, and horrible weather (though of a different variety).  I’m referring to my own home town and nation’s capital, Washington DC.  

Last night, I went to a folk concert given by three touring musicians.  Sure enough, the D.C. jokes were flying around like buzzards.  “Is there ever a time in this city that isn’t rush hour?” asked one musician.  “Yesterday, at 8:30 in the evening, it took me two hours and twenty minutes to drive from Alexandria to Laurel.”  Later, when asked if he ever comes to DC as a solo act instead of a member of a trio, another band member said, “I would never go into DC alone.”   Gridlock, crime, yeah, we’ve got plenty of both.  But that’s the least of it, isn’t it?  Mostly, we’re associated with dishonest, ambitious weasels who expect to be known as “The Honorable ___,” or “Mr. President,” or “Madam Secretary,” but have less moral fiber than the typical corner store clerk; at least that’s the way more and more Americans have come to view my city’s most prominent residents.

In some respects, this week was no different than any other week in Washington.  In a town where the athletes embarrass themselves almost as much as the politicians, Washington’s most prominent sports franchise – the one with the racist name – was imploding on a national stage.  Its coach, Mike Shanahan, gave a press conference that belonged on Comedy Central rather than ESPN.  At one point, he declared that, “I'm trying to be as honest as I can, and I don't normally do that."

Immediately, every listener thought the same thing – if only our politicians spoke that candidly, we might actually make some progress.   But unfortunately, Shanahan is a football coach, not a politician, and we expect more candor from our football coach, so that admission probably didn’t ingratiate him to many Redskin fans.

Shanahan needed a comeback line.  So in order to find one, he picked on the one Washingtonian who is even less popular than he is – the Redskins’ owner, Dan Snyder.  Shanahan mentioned that he did indeed speak to Snyder about the team’s controversial quarterback situation, but then added that "Dan could care less about the other positions."   That’s a thinly veiled way of saying that the guy who bought what was once an extremely successful football team and who then proceeded to run it into the ground couldn’t care less about 21 of the team’s 22 starting offensive and defensive players.   Of course we stink, Shanahan implied, because our owner stinks.  It’s quite a lovely way to talk about the guy who has paid you $7 million per year for five years.  Then again, there wasn’t a soul who listened to the press conference and who didn’t believe Shanahan was speaking the truth.  That’s how popular Snyder is inside the Beltway.

So yes, Washington was a laughing stock this week for its professional football team.  But like they say in Cleveland these days, there’s more to life than professional football.  And when you look beyond the gridiron, Washington’s week wasn’t half bad.   We have a budget deal brewing, folks.  One that has passed the House.  One that was sponsored by a House Republican and a  Senate Democrat.   One that even columnist Paul Krugman, who rarely has a nice thing to say about anything, called a “small step toward political sanity.”  Trust me, coming from Krugman, that is high praise.  

Only two months ago, the legislative leaders of this city resembled the Keystone Kops in presiding over a Government Shutdown.  Then, once that was over, we sat back and watched the executive branch fumble the Obamacare rollout so badly that even Ayn Rand would have been surprised by such government incompetence.   Political observers knew that nobody wanted to see a repeat of the Shutdown and the possibility that the Government would default on its debt.  Then again, it also seemed difficult to imagine that the Keystone Kops would figure out a way to come together and hammer out a new budget that didn’t simply maintain the status quo – which, given the sequestration, was truly bleak.   Personally, I was shocked when I heard that Paul Ryan and Patty Murray were able to reach an honest-to-God compromise early enough that even the threat of a Shutdown was taken off the table.

I’m not here to lionize Ryan or Murray like they’re Mandela and Gandhi.    Frankly, praising the character of politicians has come to ring as hollow as praising athletes.  Most of us don’t know these people personally, and though some of them may perform exceptionally well in playing fields and press conferences, the more we read about them as human beings, the less we come to trust them.   All in all, it is better to look up to the folks we truly know than the ones we only know from afar.
Nevertheless, I cannot finish this tale of two cities without at least giving a nod to Ms. Murray and Mr. Ryan.  For whatever reason, they were the ones who stepped up to the plate and hammered out a deal.  They were the ones who risked taking a political hit from the extremists in their respective parties who were sure to call them sellouts by giving up too much in the spirit of compromise.  And at the end of the day, they were the ones who have pointed this city back in the direction that it needs to go – a direction of unity, not polarization, and stability, not the threat of Shutdowns and Defaults.

All in all, it was a good week in Washington, despite the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the football team.   Within a few weeks, Shanahan will surely be gone, but Ryan and Murray will still be working … and so will our federal workers.  Perhaps that’s the way it should be on all fronts.


Unknown said...

Federal worker.

I cannot conceive a more accurately concise oxymoron

Unknown said...

Federal Worker.

Does a more concise oxymoron exist?