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Body politic decays from the head down

Editor’s note: Michael Ackley’s columns are satire and parody based on current events, and thus mix fact with fiction. He assumes informed readers will be able to tell which is which. Howard Bashford is fictional. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

News item: Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates has agreed to plead guilty to the “infraction” of stealing and trashing about 1,000 copies of The Daily Californian, student newspaper of the University of California. He says he did it at the end of his election campaign because he was “tired.”

“I’m feeling a bit irritable,” Howard Bashford said the other evening as he began dismantling his curbside stall on Berkeley’s fabled Telegraph Avenue.

Ever since the “Summer of Love,” before he realized he was just another petite entrepreneur, he has been peddling belts, feathered hat bands and cheap silver earrings in the block that terminates at the gateway to the University of California campus.

“Yep,” he continued. “I’m really tired – and grumpy. I think I’ll go down to the newsstand and throw a few papers into the gutter.”

“Whoa, Howard!” I exclaimed as I helped him dismantle his folding table. “Remember you’re in Berkeley, home of the Free Speech Movement.”

“Speech, schmeech,” he sneered. “If it’s good enough for our mayor, it’s good enough for me.”

“Now hold on, Howard,” I said. “Bates apologized for trashing the Daily Cal. He even agreed to plead guilty and pay a fine of up to $250.”

“Yeah,” he snorted, “250 bucks. I’d say it was worth it to get back at those snooty editors. Imagine them endorsing the establishment candidate!”

“Establishment?” I was shocked. “It’s true, Bates’ opponent was the incumbent, but you’d hardly call her an establishment type. In any other city, she’d be called a socialist. And how can you abandon freedom of opinion, given Berkeley’s history?”

Howard looked pensive.

“Berkeley hasn’t been the home of free speech for a long time,” he said, “unless you call shouting people down free speech. In fact, that’s what we called it when we raised the ruckus that kept Benjamin Netanyahu from giving an address here. Tom’s action was right in step with that.”

“But he broke the law,” I argued. “Elected officials are sworn to uphold the law.”

Howard seemed to waver, then braced up again: “Yeah, that’s what you moralizers kept saying when you were out to get Bill Clinton. He may have broken the law, but that was just a minor infraction, too.”

“Actually,” I pointed out, “it was a felony.”

“But it was over a minor matter,” he said. “That made all the difference. Besides, when a politician says he’s sorry, we ought to just take him at his word and let him get on with the work we elected him to do.”

“Like Trent Lott?” I asked. “He said he was sorry, and he didn’t even break a law, but he’s not getting a pass.”

Howard seemed to think this over as we heaved the last of his display cases into the bed of his pickup truck.

He slammed the tailgate, leaned against it and took a couple of deep breaths, staring at the pavement.

When he turned to me the pensive look had returned to his face.

“I guess maybe I’ve forgotten my youthful idealism,” he said. “I didn’t want to admit it to myself, and that’s why I was so quick to defend the mayor.

“It really has been eating at me for a while, that I’ve been pretending to ‘keep the faith’ when I’ve actually turned my back on the principles I used to believe in. It’s a hard thing to confess, and a little scary.”

I couldn’t help gloating inwardly – topping Howard in debate is not an easy thing – but I kept a straight face as I asked a final question:

“So you’re afraid more and more of our politicians are getting off the hook for actions that used to get people thrown out of office?”

“No,” said Howard. “I’m afraid more and more of us are getting to be more and more like the politicians.”