A different approach to political journalism

My style of journalism derives from Dikaeopolis, an ordinary Athenian countryman and my political hero. In the interests of full disclosure, I offer an example of his philosophy: But never since my first bath have my brows been as soap stung as they are now, when the Assembly’s scheduled for a regular dawn meeting, and here’s an empty Pnyx: everybody’s gossiping in the market as up and down they dodge the ruddled rope. The presidents aren’t even here. No, they’ll come late, and when they do you can’t imagine how they’’ll shove each other for the front row, streaming down en masse. But they don’t care at all about making peace. O city, city! I am always the very first to come to Assembly and take my seat. Then, in the solitude, I sigh, I yawn, I stretch myself, I fart, I fiddle, scribble, pluck my beard, do sums, while I gaze off to the countryside and pine for peace, loathing the city and yearning for my own deme, that never cried “buy coal,” “buy vinegar,” “buy oil”; it didn'y know the word “buy”; no, it produced everything itself, and the Buy Man was out of sight. So now I’m here, all set to shout, interrupt, revile the speakers, if anyone speaks of anything except peace.” Aristophanes, Archarnians, 425 BC.Aristophanes won first prize at the Linaean Festival for this work, performed six years after the Pelopponesian War had started, devastating the countryside, and five years after plague had broken out behind Athens’ walls. In this midst of this historic tragedy there was the comedy of Athenian government, pro-war and pro-war contract.The speech came back to me, 40 years after I had studied it in college. Two years after studying it, I became involved in state politics, working for the Democratic Party and Gov. Pat Brown. At that time in state government, a great rivalry was playing out between the governor and the Speaker of the state Assembly, Jesse Unruh, both Democrats, both responding to a party that was as well organized as Democrats ever got in California, both creating legislation for a population of 18.5 million that became the model for the nation in education, social programs, health care, transportation, water systems and even natural resource protection. The Legislature that passed these bills was voted the best in the nation in 1971.Yesterday, I sat in the gallery of the state Assembly for nearly nine hours, fleeing only when I realized the garage where my car was parked would be closing in a quarter hour. I was waiting for the Assembly to pass the budget the Senate passed Sunday night. The Democrats were in recess to caucus all afternoon. I ran into several of them at a free buffet in the basement around 5 p.m. and later, dashing out the capitol doors at 8:45 p.m., I ran into a group of them returning from dinner.Here’s where my approach to journalism, based on my political hero, Dikaeopolis, comes in. In the interest of full disclosure, I spell it out for you.My first principle: Never seek information that is not written down by an official agency. I do this because I am trying to write from a general public point of view. I do have, from my experience, some contacts in the capitol; and from my experience I know they -- and everyone else in the capitol -- will try to spin me, the general public, as far as they can.As far as I know, I am as alone in the gallery as Dikaeopolis was in the Athenian Assembly. In fact, I often carry a copy of Archarnians in my book bag for company as I sit waiting for a decision on the budget or other matters.I do not jeer, as he did because, if I did, I would be barred entrance to the building. The public must be extremely polite in the building and treat legislators with great respect, whatever they do or don’t. They are the best people corporate money can buy, after all.Principle Two: Never turn down a chance to chin-wag with knowledgeable people. If you, like I, were sitting in a nearly deserted gallery, waiting for the best representatives money could buy to pass a budget, you might also wile away the minutes, even hours, chit-chatting with people near you,lobbyists for example.Today, in the state capitol, lobbyists are the most interesting people to talk to. Unlike termed legislators, lobbyists have been around. The wise people of California forgot to limit the terms of lobbyists when they limited the terms of legislators, with the result that lobbyists know a lot more than legislators.Lobbyists are eager to impart their knowledge to ordinary rural Californians like myself, dull-witted folk dressed in jeans. Lobbyists have become the teachers of state government because the people rebelled against what they perceived as corruption among politicians. Lobbyists are like the faculty at a small institute of government. Also like professors, they are highly specialized in their areas. One can tell you everything about Indian gaming; others about poor people and social programs. They are fascinating, persuasive, highly intelligent people with very precise, well-financed missions.Principle Three: Never follow a lobbyist’s lead on a story because it will always end up in a special-interest dead end, some cut de sac the lobbyist will have talked you into where you will have to take her point of view and you won’t have been at all sure how you arrived there.A metaphor about talking with lobbyists: You know what happens when you try to reach a main thoroughfare by driving through a new subdivision? That’s what talking to a lobbyist is like.There are two modes of this conversation. First, you can simply listen as the lobbyist describes his mission. Alternatively, you can attempt to ask the lobbyist a question and listen to her describe her mission. In both cases, you will get lost on Lobbyist Court, a cut de sac with perhaps a few portable basketball hoops lining its curb, bicycles in the driveways, pleasant gardens, illegal aliens doing yard work and (in season) Republican yard signs.Information is power in the capitol. But what the public has to ask is who owns the sources of the information. This ain’t no wild spring some dope grower discovered out on a walk in the woods. These springs of information may look natural but they are highly developed complete with underground pipes leading to pleasant cul de sacs far away.Principle Four: Dress the part. A reporter representing the public doesn’t want to be mistaken for a staffer, a lobbyist, a legislator or a member of the press. I wear jeans and cotton shirts. Like the public, I’m unemployed, down to my last dollar, still neat and clean, but could never afford clothes that staffers, lobbyists, legislators or members of the capitol press corps wear.The ushers in the galleries of the Assembly and Senate are shrewd judges of people and politics. One of their important functions is security. Perish the thought they would permit entrance to a Dikaeopolis who would jeer, boo, hiss and harangue from the gallery the best Legislature special-interest money can buy. A person could lose a job for not anticipating something like that.I have now spent enough hours scratching, fatting and scribbling by myself in the gallery that I am known by the ushers. Last night, when I fled the building to get my car, they urged my not to weaken, said I had no stamina. "You out-lasted the other guy,” one said.In fact, I outlasted three other guys. The first other guy I met in the afternoon in the corridor around 3 p.m. “Where’s the up-and-down, the in-and-out, the time machine?” he asked me. I replied I didn’t know what he was talking about.“You wouldn’t,” he said. “You think you know everything.”Other guys sat for awhile in the Assembly gallery yesterday, because it was hot in the capitol gardens, where a growing number of local homeless people sit. Some venture into the air-conditioned building to watch the show.One other guy had long hair, a beard and a red cap. The red cap he held about two inches above his head the whole time he sat watching the empty Assembly floor.Being a cleanly, if simply dressed, ordinary, rural Californian, naturally capitol ushers would take me for a homeless reject from a state hospital lurching from medication to medication, food line to food line.This makes perfect sense if you see what capitol ushers see: an endless parade of power clothes, over or under-stated depending on the mission and the klass of the wearer.Everyone in the capitol is buying and selling. It is a vast, interconnected society of merchants, like Aristophanes described in 425 BC.A member of the public with a skeptical cast of mind could form the hypothesis that it is this mercantile culture in the capitol that has produced a crisis that is at once constitutional, political and fiscal.However, lest you be tempted to blame lobbyists, staffers or legislators for this situation, I refer you to an old saying from Congress: if you think this guy is bad, you ought to meet his constituents.Californians voted for Prop. 13, a developer’s dream machine because, while it kept land-use decision in the hands of local government, it took away the taxation flexibility to control it.Californians voted for term limits -- six years for the Assembly, eight for the Senate, none for lobbyists. This created a situation in which the overwhelming political experience and expertise passed to the lobbyists, leaving the elected officials young, dumb, pretty, but without time or -- given the comely but fairly witless state of their staffs -- resources to KNOW what they are voting on.Another problem is that political ambition springs eternal in some Americans’ hearts. So, the quaint, 18th-century concept of citizen legislators going up to the capitol from their yeoman farms for a few years of public service, distasteful as it might be, didn’t quite work out the way our “progressive” fantasists, their minds mired in the politics of 1910, told us it would. The legislators ceaselessly angle to prolong their terms, seeking seats in other houses, or the blessed security of an untermed congressional seat or even untermed seats on boards of supervisors in order to continue giving the public the benefit of their leadership.The Legislature voted unanimously for electrical deregulation, authored by Jim Brulte, Republican kingpin of the Legislature at the time. The Legislature didn’t vote unanimously for that bill without strong public support and weak public opposition.So, because I attempt to report from the point of view of an ordinary California countryman, of course I sound like an idiot.