For many families, it's a cardinal rule for friendly relations to declare certain times and places ''politics-free'' zones. Few things can ruin a perfectly pleasant family outing like an in-depth discussion of debt-ceiling negotiations, the relative sanity of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, or the long-term prospects for the solvency of Social Security and Medicare. Unless you happen to be a part of one of those families who agree about everything, in which case, bully for you.
My family does not agree on everything, so while my mother was recently visiting we had an agreement that we wouldn't discuss politics while touring the city that is the heart of American politics. I should point out that this agreement with my mom doesn't cover gay stuff — we're all happily in agreement on pretty much everything on that front. My husband is not only accepted by my mom and her family, I suspect at times they prefer him to me.
But, it being Washington, the agreement broke down briefly over lunch at the Hard Rock with my mom and three of my aunts. On the plus side, we were all pretty much in agreement on the general unworthiness of Sarah Palin — that decision to resign her governorship is never going to play well beyond her hardcore fans — and they were open to the characterization of Michele Bachmann as ''Sarah Palin with a stronger work ethic.''
On the minus side, we hit what I think is one of the central problems of politics today and how it's perceived by people who aren't professionals or partisans. Mom challenged me: ''Surely you can't tell me that you think any of them in Congress aren't just in it for themselves.''
Surely I can.
Yes, of course, there are venal, self-centered people in Congress who have relentlessly pursued power for the sake of power, whose involvement in politics is purely about the sport and not the meaning, whose ultimate goal is victory for the party rather than the people.
For some reason Mitch McConnell comes to mind again.
But they're not all that way. Because of my own concerns and ideologies, you can assume that I'll see such Democratic congressmen as Barney Frank, Jerry Nadler and Tammy Baldwin as committed to principles as much as power. On the other side of the Hill, such senators as Al Franken and Patrick Leahy strike me similarly.
Yet my perceptions aren't tuned entirely by party. I can talk smack all day long about Sen. Tom Coburn and his disastrous policy prescriptions on everything from government spending to public health — but I don't doubt that he's committed to principles, even if they are principles I oppose.
After I made my impassioned case for the existence of at least some good in government, we reinstated the ban on political discussions and finished our lunch. As we later rode past the Capitol in a D.C. Duck, our tour guide cracked a joke about Congress not working because they're out of town, but they don't work when they're in town either. People simply expect to treat our government as a collection of crooks, cads and criminals. Maybe it's a small, surviving piece of my youthful naiveté, but I'd hope we could do better in our perceptions of our own government, even if we live in a time when our government seems to be living down to our lowest expectations.