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Baseball's lesson for Washington

Story highlights

  • Bob Greene: D.C. pols should heed words of then-future MLB chief Giamatti during 1981 strike
  • Giamatti said public not interested in baseball's "squalid little squabbles"
  • Greene: Government leaders should be keepers of public trust
  • Greene: If federal workers shut down government, there'd be an uproar

Official Washington, still stuck in the government shutdown of its own making, seems exceedingly short on wisdom these days. But maybe it is looking in the wrong places for answers.

Maybe, for one example, there is an unexpected lesson of sorts to be found in the history of baseball.

That sport, which is currently moving through its postseason and toward the World Series, is hardly without it own troubles; it has endured its share of shutdowns, strikes and lockouts. It was during one of those work stoppages -- the seven-week strike of 1981-- that an anguished fan pleaded publicly with the leaders of the sport, both the owners and the players, to come to their senses.

The fan was Bart Giamatti, who at the time was the president of Yale University and who would go on to become the commissioner of Major League Baseball. Giamatti, frustrated by the posturing and excuses on both sides, wrote that the failure to open up the gates of the ballparks was "utter foolishness. ... The people of America care about baseball, not about your squalid little squabbles. Reassume your dignity and remember that you are the temporary custodians of an enduring public trust."

Bob Greene

Indeed.

The squalid little squabbles that have gummed up the daily machinery of the federal government have laid bare a stark truth: the unwillingness of leaders of both parties to get past their desire to portray themselves solely as winners, and those on the other side solely as losers.

    That the majority of the public -- the employers of these officials -- want the government to open back up seems to have mattered little to those entrusted with the authority to open it. The politicians' belated nervous scrambling of the last few days, prompted by the citizens' disdain, has only highlighted how badly they overestimated the limits of the country's patience.

    During political campaign seasons, candidates, both Republicans and Democrats, love to proclaim: "This election isn't about me. It's about you." That thought tends to evaporate after the election is won. The Congress and the White House have been acting as if the wishes of the citizens to get the government operating again are an irritating distraction from what the political leaders are most focused on: stubbornly and frantically shifting the blame to the other guy.

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    If Harry Truman proclaimed that "the buck stops here," the people in charge in the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House seem resolved to continually bleat: "The buck stops there." It is all someone else's fault. And the public is supposed to accept that.

    If it were federal workers, instead of the elected leaders of the federal government, who had made the decision to close down buildings, parks, programs and services, they could expect to be in dire trouble. President Ronald Reagan, when federal air traffic controllers walked off their jobs in 1981, said: "Government cannot close down the assembly line. It has to provide without interruption the protective services which are government's reason for being." But when it is the elected officials themselves who close down the assembly line, they expect the citizens to understand.

    Every moment the political leaders have spent preening before the cameras has been a moment they were not working to reopen the government.

    There is a stirring sentence in the creed of the Navy SEALs: "I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions." It is as if the men and women in charge in Washington have adopted the mirror opposite of that code. Baseball fan Giamatti wrote, in the midst of that 1981 strike: "There is no general sympathy for either of your sides. Nor will there be."

    The sooner that the leaders of government -- the "temporary custodians of an enduring public trust" -- fully comprehend that there is, and will be, no general sympathy heading their way, either, the sooner they may realize that it's time to step away from the television cameras and cease their futile search for that sympathy.

    And instead do the jobs they are being paid to do.

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