The Magazine

Mr. Sununu Goes to Washington

The political philosophy of an actual politician.

Jun 16, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 38 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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"Guantánamo, on the other hand--even if everything you're doing is legally approved, something can still be implemented in a way that's counterproductive to our moral perspective. We must be right and seem to be right. Guantánamo is a political, diplomatic, and moral liability. Give the Guantánamo detainees access to federal courts to appeal the determination."

The senator said that where government goes astray is with the "institutional momentum that often drives things in a wrong direction. It comes from the natural tendency of public officials to show that they've done something. The easy way to do this is new spending, set-asides, new rules, new regulations. Reform is difficult. Alternatives have to be carefully examined. Legislators have to think hard about unintended consequences. Most of the members of Congress can't even be bothered to go through the process. There's a lack of self-awareness. Too often members of Congress lose sight of how they're viewed by the public."

Senator Sununu gave, as an example, Congressman Don Young (Republican of Alaska) and his 2005 transportation bill set-aside for a $200 million bridge linking Ketchikan (population 7,845) with its airport (six flights a day).

"Also," he said, "it takes a certain humility to realize that all the committee appointments and bill mark-ups and leadership posts that we get so excited about here in Washington don't matter to the public."

Concerning the humbler aspects of politics, I asked the senator about coping with its six-Rotary-lunches-in-one-day routines. How does anyone--who's not a Clinton or a creature from the Clinton Lagoon--endure the business of running for office? For an answer the senator returned to the authors of our system. "I'm intrigued by the notion that most of our country's founders were suspicious of anyone who wanted to hold public office, e.g., Aaron Burr. The Founders retained that suspicion even after they themselves held office. They regarded it as an obligation, not an aspiration."

Was he suspicious of himself? Or did he feel obligated?

"When the New Hampshire House seat came open [in 1996], I looked at the other people who'd announced. I came to the conclusion that if I didn't run, New Hampshire would be represented by another trial lawyer." Good enough for this reporter. (Incidentally Senator Sununu's opponent in this fall's race, former governor Jean Shaheen, is not a trial lawyer--her husband is. Shaheen herself is a veteran of the only institution capable of making our lives more miserable than the law courts. She was a school teacher.)

Then Senator Sununu let me in on a secret known only to a few select Washington insiders. You can get inside the Capitol dome and go all the way to the top. We took the little train that runs from the basement of Russell to the basement of the Capitol building. There we began a climb of 288 feet, first up spiral steps to the base of the dome where we stared down into the rotunda 180 feet below and up at Constantino Brumidi's Apotheosis of Washington. (I wonder if the tourists know just how hot the mythological babes are who surround the Father of Our Country and hover over our commitment to personal freedom--4,664 square feet of rosy bosom and curvaceous hip.)

We went through a little door and along a catwalk to a zig-zagging iron staircase. There are really two Capitol domes, one inside and one outside. We were between them, scampering through the hemispherical iron trusses that were bolted together nearly a century and a half ago. The senator could, of course, explain the structure's design, its stresses, its load-bearing capacity. And he did so without the huffing and puffing that beset his guest. (He's a very fit senator.) We ascended to the dome's apex and stood outside, under the feet of the heroic scale allegorical figure Freedom--an apt place to contemplate consent of the governed.

The view seems to command the world. And sometimes the United States government seems to try to do the same. These are weighty items--the dome, the government, political philosophy. Solid foundations are obviously a must. The dome isn't shaky. But all I can say for the soundness of the other two things is, "Senator John Sununu."

P.J. O'Rourke is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.