The note I got from Vice President Joe Biden last week puzzled me at first. Gregarious as he is, I've never met the man. And I wasn't used to his calling me by my first name.
"Joel," he wrote, "I just wanted to take a moment to thank you. I know you are volunteering for this campaign, giving time that is hard to come by. I know you're also giving what you can afford to fuel our work, even though that's also hard for so many. But you believe in what the President is trying to do to move this country forward. And we believe in you. Thank you again. Joe."
It's not as though I had never received a computer-generated message. I've even been on the sending end of a whole lot of direct mail, and am at least passingly familiar with how many things you can do to make the addressee feel like a friend. Most of them I try to avoid just because they insult the intelligence of the recipient.
But this note was different. It didn't merely pretend that our friendship was closer than it really was. It suggested a friendship that didn't even exist in the first place. Somebody had put my name on a list of donors to a cause I pretty categorically reject. Yes, two years ago I had, in the quiet of a voting booth, for the first time in my life voted for a couple of Democrats I thought to be good choices for public service. And somehow, ever since, I've been getting these insultingly chummy notes thanking me for being so loyal.
The Republicans, mind you, are no better. A friend from church, Robert Persons, decided last month to show the level of his current GOP loyalty by sending a whopping contribution of just one cent to help the congressional committee through the 2010 election cycle. "On behalf of the entire Republican House Leadership," the computer wrote back, "I want to thank you for your Membership Renewal and generous contribution of $.01 to the National Republican Congressional Committee. By renewing your membership, you are part of a reinvigorated team at the NRCC, dedicated to setting a new course for Congress and the nation. By signing up early, you have shown me and my Republican House colleagues that you stand 100 percent behind us as we fight to stop the Democrats' ultra-liberal agenda. . . . Your allegiance is now, as always, invaluable."
The closing to the letter was especially notable. If just $.01 would do this much, the computer wondered, had Mr. Persons considered what might happen if he would match his own gift? "An additional contribution of $.01," the letter said, "will help build the foundation necessary to secure victory." The check-off list on the reply card helpfully included categories of both $.01 and $.02.
Much has been written in recent days about the public arrogance of the current administration. And indeed, a big part of that atmosphere has been produced by the president himself. Arkansas Democratic Congressman Marion Berry earlier this year recalled a conversation he had with President Obama. Berry worried to the president that the Obamacare effort reminded him too much of the failed 1994 healthcare reform effort. The "big difference," the president assured the congressman, "is me." Such arrogance oozes from the Obama White House. During the Bush years, critics took issue with the administration's stubbornness; but stubbornness is different from arrogance. Compare Bush and Obama as individuals, and there's no question who's better equipped to teach a course in personal modesty and who's more needful of taking such a course.
But that's not my main point here. The people writing the fundraising letters-for both parties-all seem to be infected with the same arrogance. They badger us to believe them: Send us to Washington, and we'll straighten things out. We'll make government run the way it's supposed to.
And they expect me to believe that when they don't even know if I'm a political friend or foe? Or when they can't stop long enough to interpret the meaning of a simple penny taped to a reply card?
That's a kind of arrogance we need to watch out for-regardless of what happens on Nov. 2.
Email Joel Belz