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On October 25, Samuel Wurzelbacher (aka Joe the Plumber) announced he would be seeking a seat in the U.S. Congress, running as a Republican, representing Ohio’s 9th congressional district. The 9th is currently represented by Democrat Marcy Kaptur, who’s expected to be challenged in the primary by Dennis Kucinich who lost his seat as a result of redistricting (his district was combined with Kaptur’s).
Those who followed the 2008 presidential campaign will remember Joe the Plumber as the man John McCain dramatically invited up on stage and portrayed as a symbol of America’s “noble working class.” McCain hoped the gesture would attract the blue-collar vote. Alas, with his abject ignorance of Obama’s proposed tax plan and his puffed-up resume (despite using the plumbers union logo on his web page, he was neither a licensed plumber nor a union member, but rather a “plumber’s helper,” having failed the journeyman’s test), Joe turned out to be more of a liability than an asset.
Still, proving F. Scott Fitzgerald wrong in claiming that there are no second acts in American life, instead of licking his wounds and slinking away in embarrassment and disgrace (and perhaps giving that journeyman’s test one more go), Joe abandoned the plumbing trade altogether and went on to bigger and better things. He became a motivational speaker.
When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s, he was both impressed and appalled by much of what he observed here. One of the things that appalled him was Davy Crockett. Crockett had recently served in Congress, representing (coincidentally) Tennessee’s 9th district. Tocqueville described Crockett as a man “…who had received no education, could read only with difficulty, had no property, no fixed dwelling, but spent his time hunting, selling his game for a living, and spending his whole life in the woods.”
If the Frenchman was suggesting that only “educated” citizens are worthy of holding public office, he couldn’t have been more wrong. Just consider unctuous ex-senator Phil Gramm (he and wife Wendy smoothed the way for Enron) and pesky Republican show-off Newt Gingrich. Both of these men have Ph.Ds and were former university professors. But Gore Vidal and Eugene Debs never spent a day in college. Tom Paine never went to college. Harry Bridges never went to college. Yet, Sarah Palin holds a bachelor’s degree in—God help us—Journalism.
However, if Tocqueville’s larger point was that we Americans are too easily enamored, too easily suckered into thinking that any common man—any working man, any “man of the people”—is preferable to any nominal “elitist,” then he was definitely on to something. Indeed, we do seem to have a fetish, a bizarre and stubborn love affair, with the concept of mock-equality.
Obviously, no voter is going to say, “What I want in a candidate is someone who’s totally unlike me, someone who has no idea what I go through day to day, someone who has never struggled and has no idea how hard it is to make a living.” But while no one’s going to say that, it shouldn’t follow that any self-avowed “common man” who comes down the pike is automatically qualified to represent us.
The argument can be made that Franklin Roosevelt did more for working people than any president in history, and FDR was an aristocrat (scorned him as a “traitor to his class”). Ted Sorenson, JFK’s aide and speechwriter, said that because Kennedy grew up around rich people he was not only singularly unimpressed by them, he often expressed his contempt for the rich. Conversely, Richard Nixon, who grew up in a modest household, remained awestruck by men of wealth because they were everything he wasn’t.
Ultimately, it will be up to the good people of Ohio’s 9th district to choose. They will be asked to decide whether they want as their representative a man who couldn’t follow a basic tax argument, who couldn’t pass a journeyman’s test, and who knowingly lied about his qualifications. If they wish to go down that road and elect such a man, so be it. That will be their legacy.
But maybe we’re overreacting. After all, what real harm can one (one out of 435) unqualified congressman do? And Lord knows, both the Democrats and Republicans have sent weirder, more offensive people to congress than this fellow. Also, Davy Crockett may have been adept at hunting and fishing, but Joe the Plumber—even without his journeyman’s license—knows how to rebuild a lawn sprinkler and fix a leaky faucet. Can Eric Cantor say the same?
David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He can be reached at Dmacaray@earthlink.net