Leaders or followers?

If the courtroom was a microcosm, we need a lot of help

Issue: "Campaign 2000," July 29, 2000

So it's off to Philadelphia, and all the hoopla of the first big political convention of the new millennium. Political conventions, of course, aren't what they used to be. I still remember my parents' sharp disappointment when Dwight Eisenhower-a native of Kansas, but in their minds a tool of the Eastern Establishment-stole the nomination from the true conservative from Ohio, Robert Taft. No pro forma roll calls that year! And how could an 11-year-old not be intrigued with names like Estes and Adlai, the two main contenders for the Democrats in 1952?

Even by radio, a national political convention in the 1950s had 10 times the punch and drama that the same events provide over TV these days. Sanitized, stage-crafted, prepackaged, and predetermined, the 2000 conventions will draw only a fraction of the interest the same gatherings earned half a century ago.

It's better if you're actually there. That's why I'm going to Philadelphia (along with a team from WORLD). There's no substitute for getting caught up first-hand in the possibility that something really important might happen. Why else would the networks go to the incredible expense of parking all those big trucks, stringing all that cable, and raising all those big satellite dishes high in the air? Where else do you run a good chance of bumping into David Broder, Trent Lott, or Nina Totenberg in the booth next to yours in the coffee shop? It must all be desperately important.

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And, of course, in one sense it is. It matters very much who our leaders are. Certainly, even if it had escaped our attention before, we should know that now, after nearly eight embarrassing years of Bill Clinton.

But given the tendency of so many leaders to be little more than followers themselves-to do nothing of consequence until they have checked out the public opinion polls-maybe our real attention should be focused on the grass roots of America instead of on the huge convention centers in Philadelphia and in Los Angeles, where the Democrats will coronate their candidate.

Which is why, as I go to Philadelphia, I'll be thinking about the several hours I spent last week in our own county courthouse. I had been subpoenaed by the sheriff to serve as a witness in a child support and property settlement case involving a couple I knew whose marriage was ending.

I had been in such a courtroom before, but still was unprepared for the general sadness, squalor, disorder, sullenness, tears, and juvenile excuse-making that pervaded the scene. "Jones vs. Smith, please!" the judge announced.

Two attorneys stood in response, and perhaps one or two clients as well, but usually not. "Your honor," one of the attorneys said, "my client had surgery last week, I expected her here, but since she isn't, I'm sure there's a good reason, and I respectfully ask you for a continuance."

The judge looked over her glasses at her manila folder, then around the room, and finally at the lawyer: "The record shows I've already allowed you three continuances."

"You're right, your honor, and I trust this will be the last."

"It will indeed be the last one," said the judge, "but I will indulge you just one more time." She picked up her next folder and moved on to the next case: "Brown vs. Black!"

I counted more than 40 cases on the docket that day; more than 30 were continued or otherwise lost their way. Justice seemed like a distant or even unknown ideal. It was grimy stuff all morning, messy and disheveled. It wasn't at all what I imagined in my eighth-grade civics class went on under an American flag in a state courtroom.

These were the people and this is the society, I thought while watching that courtroom, that the next president of the United States must lead. In all their brokenness, in all their selfishness, in all their shifting values, in all their rootlessness, in all their disdain for or outright rejection of any eternal verities, here is a microcosm of the people either George W. Bush or Al Gore will be called on to preside over.

It's going to be hard enough even if he's a leader. But if he's only a follower of the sort we've had too many of recently, God save us all.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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