Murphy acquires the deceased lawmaker’s (James Garner, in a relaxed cameo) campaign signs and takes advantage of the similarity in names to run for Congress himself, relying on the radio and sound-truck campaign slogan, “Vote the name you know; vote the name you trust.”
Aside from a mildly inspired “victory speech” consisting of political cliches strung together with only slightly less coherence than President George H.W. Bush sometimes managed in real life, the high point of the otherwise predictable slapstick comes when the late Rep. Johnson’s aide, played by Grant Shaud, sits down to ask the newly elected Murphy where he stands on the issues.
Quickly grasping that the freshman doesn’t have a clue, the Washington insider assures Murphy it doesn’t matter: “Either way, I can get you money from one side or the other.”
It’s only slapstick, of course. But it’s funny precisely because it hits so close to the truth. Come out for a ban on automatic rifles, freshman congressman Murphy is told, and the cash will flow from the gun control forces. But go the other way, and there’ll be plenty of loot from the gun manufacturers -- not to mention a free junket to go duck hunting with M-16s. (They only drop one bird; Murphy wisecracks “It must have had a heart attack.”)
As our current news accounts show us real-life congressmen and senators of both parties -- 64 percent of his money went to Republicans, but there are more of them -- racing to divest themselves of more than half a million dollars in campaign donations from indicted lobbyist and born-again canary Jack Abramoff, the truth of “The Distinguished Gentleman” hits home.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., showed some character as he declared he has no intention of giving back the $61,000 he received from members of Abramoff’s lobbying team. (After all, doesn’t “giving it back” imply you were promising improper favors when you took it?)
Though the senator may be less successful in convincing voters this was strictly “a Republican scandal,” as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., promptly joined five other Democrats vowing to return their Abramoff cash this week.
It appears part of the fraud here lay in Abramoff promising cash-laden clients that he could deliver favors which had by no means yet been arranged. But a central government that reserves to itself the right to meddle anywhere only invites such abuses.
If today’s delegates to Washington followed in the footsteps of Rep. Davy Crockett, routinely announcing “I can’t find any constitutional authority for us to act in that area,” how could bag men like Abramoff extort tribute from those wishing favors -- or merely wishing to pay “protection money” to ward off threatened federal interventions?
The potential donors would quickly say, “Wait a minute, Congress just announced it has no authority to regulate billboards (or Indian casinos, or whatever issue may arise today.) So why should I pay you to slip money to a congressman who’s already announced he has no authority either to help me or to harm me?”
Of course, today’s central government takes just the opposite stance -- whether it’s where you can buy drugs or medicines or how much you should pay for them; whether your doctor can help you die or what kind of warning tag must be placed on a pair of pajamas, nothing is now considered outside the federal government’s purview.
Until that changes, “close-the-barn-door” remedies like smaller limits on individual contributions -- or more paperwork in triplicate -- are nothing but new laugh lines.
The founding fathers vowed the central government in Washington would be small and mainly concern itself with foreign affairs -- that the average citizen would be able to go about his business for months or years without even detecting its influence.
That’s the solution. Till then, gentlemen ... the cash windows remain open.