Article By Yori Yanover

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Democracy's Action Figures

We went upstate to hear the governor's speech, not because we're crazy about our chief executive, but because he's there

The nice lady from NY Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's office called to invite me as the speaker's special guest to attend Governor George E. Pataki's State of the State speech in Albany last month. My first reaction was to ask if I could bring my teenage daughter along, a gesture which, predictably, yielded me the temporary rating of Coolest Dad in the Universe. Naturally, those adoring accolades only last a very short time, soon to be replaced by less complimentary ones, such as Old Man Who Wouldn't Listen to Reason, and Homework Commandant, but we bask in 'em while we can.

I wanted my daughter to come along because the governor's speech was an historic event. Mind you, it wasn't a very important speech: Mr. Pataki is concluding his third term in office next year with a record that is not particularly stellar; and it wasn't terribly well written or well carried - the governor tends to go breathy to emphasize stuff, more Lady with the Camellias than Hamlet; also when politicians run out of ideas they mustn't announce they're inventing a new Operation IMPACT and name it Operation IMPACT II.
At the buffet lunch sponsored by re-elected Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, from left: Silver, Yanover, Sr., Yanover, Jr.

Nevertheless, the event itself was historic, and I wanted my child to witness it. The executive of our state was fulfilling his constitutional obligation to appear before our elected legislators, to give an accounting of what he'd been doing with our money.

With widespread complaints about the subversion of our democracy by big corporations and the attrition of civil liberties, it is important to note that our system is still affording us a measure of freedom well beyond that which is the norm in many places, even in the West.

This is a time when we're fresh out of giants in politics and, frankly, I think giants are overrated. When James Madison sat down to figure out how to create the best level playing field for our system of government, he wasn't anticipating that our average politicians would be Churchillian in stature. On the contrary, he expected all of them, congressmen, presidents, governors and judges to be horse thieves and fishmongers; and to read the political ads of the time, most of them indeed left a lot to be desired in the honesty department. It was Madison's marvelous innovation to throw all of them into the pot and arrange it so that they would forever keep one another at least passably scrupulous.

And so, this year as in past ones, as far as we know, our governor did not throw his political adversaries in jail, did not levy prohibitive taxes on us to support his life of luxury, did not scheme to turn state resources over to the highest bidder in return for bribes, and did not conspire with enemy states to become a monarch - all things which Madison et al were fearful of, having experienced first-hand the political niceties of the 18th Century. Our governor may not be the best qualified individual for his job (although most New York State voters thought he was better than the other guy, three terms running), but he obeys our laws reasonably and submits his report to us as required and has no plans to sell us to Canada, and even if he harbors such urges - in 2004 he managed to curb them. And that's worth celebrating.

My daughter and I belong to a relatively defenseless minority, with a history of getting rounded up and pillaged and burned and sent to exile whenever the local prince figured he couldn't afford to pay what we lent him, or the clergy needed to boost attendance, or the peasants were just plain starved for entertainment. To us, the descendants of defenseless merchants and scholars, the idea of government officials obeying the laws like everyone else is novel and sassy and wonderful, because we know it can and often does ensue differently.

So we boarded the bus provided by the local Democratic club and rode up the snowy highways to our state capitol, along with a large group of chatty Lower East Siders; then we followed the Assembly business (Mr. Silver was reelected Speaker), and listened to the governor for a little over an hour, and had a great catered buffet lunch, courtesy of the speaker, in the most crowded room you can imagine, and my daughter shook hands with Mayor Bloomberg (who asked her how come she had so much metal in her mouth - bracelet humor), and AG Elliot Spitzer (who assured us his State speech would be shorter), and with the indomitable Mr. Silver and finally even with the governor, who was exceedingly pleasant to this young person easily one-third his height.

We had ourselves a grand old day, and rode the bus home in great cheer, but that was not the most important part. The really memorable part was the fact that yet again, for the 229th year in a row, our government has resisted its despotic urges and opted instead to bow before the law. What a great thing it is!

Yori Yanover, 1/May/2005

Originally published at Grand Street News

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