Congressman Jenkins on the line

Posted: Sep 06, 2006 12:01 AM

"And one day," Grandma said, "when the phone rings, it will be for you."

Grandma was not talking about the telephone as an expediter of teen romance. She had herself just now put down the telephone, opened the drawer, pulled out her checkbook, and, after a discreet sigh, diminished her bank account. Many candidates have expressed their mortification at having to call constituents personally, asking for money. They do this so often, so urgently, that it becomes easy to suppose that they have become inured to the exercise, suffering no more than the diabetic after the 1,000th daily shot of insulin.

Well, that may be so, but what about Grandma? And the foredoomed grandson?

The great community of Americans who find themselves called to the telephone, where they will be solicited for cash contributions, fully understand that they (we) are submitting to institutional arrangements that have evolved from a conflict between social imperatives: (1) There are activities in the country that deserve support, and that (2) we wish to see succeed in their struggles to survive, but which (3) we don't want to turn over to government to subsidize.

The temptation to lean on government is persistent, and almost every year, the private sector yields a little bit. Sixty years ago, when it was first suggested that the federal government might contribute to alleviating the financial problems of major private universities, the prospective beneficiaries held up their hands in shock and dismay at the mere proposal. They knew that financial benefits lead inevitably to political subjugation, although they could not have foreseen how far this would go ("How many albinos do you have in your freshman class?"). We learned from that brief period of defiance (roughly 1949-1959) that it was indeed inevitable that the feds would make demands on colleges they patronized, but that it was not inevitable that college trustees would continue to reject federal money.

But the point here stressed is not the anguish of the person who calls out for money. Rather, it is a moment's thought for the discomfiture of the person who is called on to give the money.

Solicitations are done mostly in the mail. (Add up, in one month's mail, the calls for help to church, schools, hospitals, alumni bodies, veterans groups, missionaries and political candidates -- candidates building a war chest before the election, candidates repaying debts after the election.) Yet the enterprising and dogged solicitor nowadays is going to go beyond the mail, using the telephone. Rank can be useful in such situations. "A Mr. Jenkins is on the phone for you" is easier to ignore than "Congressman Jenkins is on the phone for you."

You hear the summons. But the name of Congressman Jenkins means nothing to you. You have 1 1/2 seconds to weigh the contingencies. (1) Have you forgotten that it was Congressman Jenkins who got you the ticket for the Army-Navy game your nephew wanted? (2) Is he involved in the charity affair you are in charge of? (3) God! Is he your -- godson? Your terribly neglected godson? (4) Or is he -- most probably -- just another congressman who wants to hit you up for his campaign because Jenkins is a right-winger and YOU are a right-winger.

(Why the hell didn't he write me, instead of telephoning? Maybe he did write and I lost track of the letter. Maybe I didn't even see the letter.)

Your 1 1/2 seconds are up. "Please tell him you couldn't find me. Take his number."

Now you have plenty of time to decide whether you will call the number back. You can even do a little light research on the Internet, find out something about Congressman Jenkins ... He is running for re-election to a sixth term. Hmm. Well, SOMEBODY has been answering his phone calls ... Voted on 75 different measures during the last term, earning him an ACU rating of 88. All right, all right.

You don't have to return his phone call, but you might send him a check. That's the Hon. W.L. Jenkins, House Office Building, Washington D.C. ZIP? They'll find it.