Mr. Speaker, Resign on the Dotted Line

I hereby call upon the speaker of the House to resign.

He should resign the Contract with America. He should resign on a commitment to the values he was elected to represent. He should resign to responsible budgets and secure borders. He should resign on the dotted line.

Just jesting, of course, or more accurately, plagiarizing my own short story. The story featured a young reporter on the overnight shift at a major urban newspaper. Sometime after midnight, an item comes across the wire to the effect insiders say that last year’s NCAA Coach of the Year, Matt Abbott of Nebraska, whose contract was up this year, will resign after the school offered him a half-million dollars. Our newsie writes a quick piece to the effect that Abbott is tendering his resignation because he considers the contract amount inadequate. The piece runs in the morning paper; Abbott reads it, decides the alumni are trying to push him out, so instead of resigning as planned, he ends up resigning. When the dust settles, the reporter gets a promotion for his amazing scoop.

That more or less happened in the Hastert/Foley story, when the speaker announced a press conference. The rumor spread like a Santa Monica cigarette lighter that he would resign, but in the end he resigned—back on to the tasks at hand.

Republicans were divided, so what else is new? Some were staunchly supportive of Speaker Deny-He-Has-Dirt (sorry, couldn’t resist), while others were undercutting him and uppercutting him from all sides. It seems like this sort of schizoid schism emerges every time a Republican is guilty of some sin—venal, venial or venereal. One group of comrades will be discreet, while a discrete group will peel off and pile on. This conduct used to puzzle me before my debate with the great Italian Scrabble champion, Cecilia Pignatelli. Descended from a long line of peers, she speaks 10 languages, is one of the best Scrabble players in the world and composes excellent acrostics for the New York Times Sunday puzzle page as C.P. DiRappallo.

She is a far better player than me, although I was proud this year that two of the 75 players in the U.S. Scrabble Open had lost to me once apiece. It was gracious of Cecilia to help me sharpen my tools by playing a true maestro. But before long we were enmeshed in conflict. There were many words in the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary that she considered inaccurate, words like ZITIS and ENOUGHS. I insisted that those words be allowed in accordance with National Scrabble Association rules. She was vehemently opposed, implying that such behavior was unworthy of me as a linguist.

Mulling matters afterwards, I realized that we were each modeling a distinct brand of conservatism. Hers was a conservatism of substance, arguing for fealty to authentic sources. What counts is getting it right. That creates accuracy and also honors the nuance of language. Mine was a conservatism of systems and structures. The rule book is a necessity to prevent anarchy. Despite its imperfections, it stands between us and a world where “each man does as is just in his eyes.” It is worth yielding our purist perfectionism for the sake of a common standard. For me, enoughs was enough.

This explains why these moral lapses breed Republican collapses. Half the party is content to allow the legal process decide outcomes. The man is accused of impropriety, so let it be investigated. If he is guilty, he should pay—civil, criminal and Congressional penalties. The other half is insistent that the moral absolutes should be adduced. The culture must be reinforced. The meretricious must be met with opprobrium. We must go to a more basic venue than the legal; to the moral, the philosophical, the cultural.

Well, this familiar refrain has again been played, the discordant chords of its tintinnabulation still ringing in our ears. It seems to me time to ring the bell on this latest round of an eternal battle. Mark Foley has honorably rendered most of this moot by moving on to lonelier pastures. Numerous overlapping investigations are foraging for slime under barnacle-encrusted rocks. Even Louie Freeh is cashing in, with a free hand to apply the long arm of the law.

It is time to take a page from Bill Clinton (did I really say that?) and stop talking about this at all. His line was: “I am going back to do the work of the American people.” It is time for Hastert to say much the same: “Gentleman, I signed on some years ago to do an important job for the American people. Now it is time for me to resign.”