No, the title of today's column does not refer to Honest Abe or George Washington. Abe may have been the most honest politician, and George Washington may have been the first honest politician, but the individual I'd like to pay homage to is Huey Long, the last individual who managed to hold public office while saying what he actually thought instead of what someone else thought he should think, or worse, paid him to think. He was a true independent.
There was a time when I thought John McCain might lay claim to that title. But he finally gave into the pressure and became a full-fledged politician when he ran for president against Barack Obama. He noticed that if he spoke his mind on certain issues, most notably immigration, too many people, some who could vote and some who could contribute money that would sway the way other people voted, wouldn't support him. So he traded his independence for those votes and money.
A lot of people are laying claim to being "independents" lately. Mostly those who claim the name independent are so dependent on a single cause or issue that they won't join any party that doesn't give itself solely to their pet project.
Let's think about it a minute. To be independent means you don't follow the crowd. You don't join. You think for yourself. Given all of that, how can anyone claim to be independent and simultaneously follow the party line, any party line?
Freshmen members of congress who adhere to the Tea Party line have been making noises that sound independent, but come closer to resembling a teenager insisting to his dad, "You aren't the boss of me.'' And other loyal non-members of this non-party line up behind them, cheering actions that they would abhor in their own teenagers.
In reality (a concept that is currently foreign to American politics), being an independent means that the Tea Party faithful suspects that you are a card-carrying fifth column for the Socialist-commie element, which obviously didn't disappear with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the Chinese embrace of capitalism. On the other side of the spectrum, when the ACLU hears that you are an independent they're pretty sure that you not only have a license to carry a concealed weapon, but an itchy finger to use that weapon on anyone who looks different, especially if they also carry a weapon.
I'm not sure if Huey Long would laugh or cry. More than anyone in politics, Long recognized the politicians were for sale either for money or votes. He famously said, "We swapped the tyrant 3,000 miles away for a handful of financial slave-owning overlords who make the tyrant of Great Britain seem mild." Long said this on the floor of the U.S. congress in 1933, so he wasn't talking about actual slaveholders, but arguing that special interests held politicians in virtual slavery.
This sort of thing isn't new. Many people have complained about lobbyists and special interests and their stranglehold on Washington. All too often, though, what they are really angry about is the other guy's lobbyist or special interest. They're mad that their own lobbyist hasn't bought enough politicians so their special interests get special treatment. I have a feeling Long recognized this tendency in politics: we want the other guy to be honest, but are irritated when he expects the same from us, a sort of reversal of the Golden Rule. Now it's "Do unto others before they do unto you."
There are no independent politicians, and I suspect there never were. There was a time when being a politician meant you relinquished your independence to those who voted you into office. Now it means you relinquish your independence to those who paid for your television air time. In reality, being an independent means not letting someone else do your thinking for you, whether it be Michelle Bachmann or Barack Obama.
Perhaps that's why Long said, "One of these days the people of Louisiana are going to get good government - and they aren't going to like it." Why? Because good government is objective. Good government isn't afraid to legislate unpopular policies when they know that those policies are the right thing. Good government doesn't lie to the voters. Good government doesn't let itself be swayed by money. Who would want that?