Webster's Grandstanding Helps No One But Himself

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A young boy wearing a red polka-dot tie, his crisp blue shirt escaping his belted trousers from constant activity, found his way to the House chamber's microphone amid the excitement, chaos and noise of the opening day of the 114th Congress.

The room was filled with excited new faces about to perform their first duty as members of Congress — to vote for speaker of the House.

Old hands and the deans of state delegations, despite their longevity, were caught up in the day's excitement, too. One representative donned a ceremonial wreath; Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee sparkled in a cream-colored ensemble, and Pennsylvania Republican Mike Kelly held court for several young grandchildren dutifully lined up beside him.

The boy at the microphone performed a playful make-believe speech, raising his hands and gripping the mic several times, while looking left and right to see if anyone caught his performance.

Despite his play-acting in plain sight of every member of the House, their families and the press, almost no one looked his way.

It was a perfect metaphor for the behavior of a handful of House members who tried to catch the opening-day attention of everyone in the House chamber, including the press, with what was nothing more than a staged non-event.

Daniel Webster was That Guy last Tuesday. The Florida congressman politicked to get some members to vote with him, for him, and against John Boehner for speaker.

The effort was unsuccessful, miserably so, except in the keystrokes of Washington's political-press echo chamber.

Like the boy who caught almost no one's eye, the people who really count never even looked Webster's way. Social media and Capitol Hill's papers-of-record were happy beasts to be fed; among serious-minded voters who want this Congress to get down to business, however, none lifted an eyebrow to Webster's shenanigans.

There is certainly nothing Pollyannaish about the hopefulness that comes with the swearing-in of a new Congress. It's not just in the connection to the men who first served this chamber under perilous and difficult circumstances in the early days of our republic; it is also the knowledge that, in far more troubled times than today, there were men and women who willingly served the nation — in the deadly days of the War of 1812, through the near-collapse of the country during the Great Compromise and the Civil War, in World Wars I and II, during the civil rights era, and in the weeks after 9/11.

A feeling of hope and of starting with a clean slate springs eternal here, a first-day-of-school feeling that this is the year when you are going to make all A's on your report card while scoring the winning touchdown, performing the perfect cartwheel in gym class, and owning the school recital.

At a time when everyone knows how disgusted Americans are with the shenanigans of politics and with strident ideologists, Webster showed a divisiveness that spit in the face of what Americans want.

He was no quixotic figure chasing windmills. Quixote's flaw was that he was not self-aware, while Webster was very keenly aware of what he was doing.

And the impurity of Webster's motives seemed apparent afterward, when he proceeded to have his family's photo taken with Boehner following the vote. (If he truly objects to Boehner's leadership, why be photographed with him?)

The House of Representatives is the governing body that most reflects who we are as people and how we behave in our daily lives; quirks and all, they are like us, including the grandstanders and drama queens we all deal with every day of our lives.

Webster and his cast of characters fit that latter group exactly.

Of course, we all should feel free to challenge authority in some manner or another, but for the right reasons — not just a need to get on television, Twitter or some other form of social media.

At the end of the day, that need —– not ideology — is what drove Webster and his followers.

Despite a collective cynicism about government and the shenanigans of a few of its members, the American people at their very core are all about hope. And we still stand for the belief that because success is not easy, achieving success makes it something to be treasured all the more.

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at szito@tribweb.com
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