SIENA, Italy — Here's a modest idea to break the gridlock, the stupidity, the meanness, the partisan lying and irresponsible ineffectiveness of modern Washington. We should consider returning to the Middle Ages.
Siena today is a small city of about 50,000 people, not much bigger than it was at its peak in the late 13th century. In those good and bad old days, it was a major manufacturing, mostly wool, and commercial center in Tuscany. The bad things were the Black Death — the plague of 1348, which wiped out more than its inhabitants, reducing it to a population that might have been as low as 16,000 — and its repression by a larger neighbor, Florence. The good thing was that it was prevented from growing by those great troubles. Because of losing its struggles with its northern neighbor, much of Siena is still a beautiful and preserved city of the 14th century.
The other good and interesting thing about the city is how it was governed from 1277 to 1355. The largest building on the city's spectacular oval Piazza del Campo, then and now, is the Palazzo Pubblico, were the city was governed by the "Nove," nine men selected by lottery and locked in the palace for two months at a time.
The idea: to keep away outsiders and outside influences —we call them special interests, lobbies and lawyers — as the "councillors" debated the problems and future of their city and then wrote its laws. The motives: to reduce the power of the Catholic Church, the richest institution in the area, and the power of aristocrats, members of the 56 families exercising military and commercial power.
One of the rooms in the palace, the "Sala della Pace," the room of peace, where the nine gathered, was decorated by murals — still visible today — showing dramatic instances of good and evil in government. The "Good Government" paintings show peace, prosperity and the virtues of Temperance, Justice, Fortitude, Prudence and Magnanimity — and, of course, Faith, Hope and Charity.
The "Bad Government" paintings show murder in the streets, soldiers carrying away women, and Justice bound in the chains of Tyranny.
Looked good to me. Unfortunately, the Council of Nine was overthrown by aristocrats and soldiers of Florence, who blamed the Nine for the plague destroying the city.
So where are we today in Washington? What will people hundreds of years from now think of our national governance with all its blaming, nastiness and negativity? It looks as if our country is being run by thugs and liars motivated by revenge and pettiness beyond description.
Our leaders are obsessed, it seems, with peripheral "scandals" and misjudgments, public relations arguments, talking points and plain old nonsense. A relevant critique of the current state of affairs in the IRS "scandal" was published a week or so ago by Michael Hiltzik, the economic columnist of The Los Angeles Times:
"It's strange how 'scandal' gets defined these days in Washington. At the moment, everyone is screaming about the 'scandal' of the Internal Revenue Service scrutinizing conservative nonprofits before granting them tax-exempt status.
"Here are the genuine scandals in this affair: Political organizations are being allowed to masquerade as charities to avoid taxes and keep their donors secret, and the IRS has allowed them to do this for years.
"The bottom line first: The IRS hasn't done nearly enough over the years to rein in the subversion of the tax law by political groups claiming a tax exemption that is not legally permitted for campaign activity. Nor has it enforced rules requiring that donors to those groups pay gift tax on their donations."
I'm with him. Lock up the leaders of our Republic and force them to deal with real issues — and with each other.
LOS ANGELES — Just about 30 years ago, I wrote a "Reporter at Large" article for The New Yorker magazine about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living, illegally and legally, in Southern California. The Mexican and Chicano population of Los Angeles was the second-largest Mexican city in the world, behind only Mexico City itself.
LOS ANGELES — Times are tough. Do the numbers: Chief executive officers (CEOs) of the country's biggest companies experienced pay increases of a minuscule 15 percent in 2012, compared with the 28 percent their pay rose in 2011.
LOS ANGELES — A very wise man, Harvard philosopher George Santayana, said more than a hundred years ago: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
LOS ANGELES — When ATMs, the cash machines, began to appear on the outside walls of banks in the 1970s, I refused to go near them. My mother was a teller at the Trust Company of New Jersey on Journal Square in Jersey City, and I knew the machines were designed to eliminate her job.
LOS ANGELES — I thought I had said all I had to say last week about the accelerated change in American attitudes toward gay marriage and "illegal" immigration. But there are a lot of other folks out there examining the accelerated politics of the day and generally coming to the conclusion that, after years of moving right, Americans are moving left again.
LOS ANGELES — As the Supreme Court debated last week over the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the 17-year-old law barring same-sex marriage, Justice Antonin Scalia noted the number of states that are permitting gays and lesbians to marry. "There has been a sea change," he said, "between now and 1996."
LOS ANGELES — If you Google "Afghanistan," you get your choice of occupiers. There's "Occupation of Afghanistan by British," "Occupation of Afghanistan by Russians" and "Occupation of Afghanistan by United States."
LOS ANGELES —- "What if they gave an election and no one came?" That's a paraphrase of a war or anti-war cry of the 1960s. More than 40 years later in Los Angeles, the nation's second city, the cliche came alive in reports of last Tuesday's municipal election, where turnout has dropped to 16 percent, half the number of people who turned out for local elections only eight years ago.
LOS ANGELES — I do have an office, at the University of Southern California, but except for actually teaching, I have been working at home for most of my life. Naturally, I'm interested in the controversy generated by Marissa Mayer, the new boss at Yahoo, when she ordered all that company's employees to report to a regular company office.
LOS ANGELES — If I were a Republican activist, I think I would give up reading political journalism for a while. I might even turn to reading history, say the history of whatever happened to the Whig Party.
LOS ANGELES — President Obama said "jobs" 47 times in his State of the Union message last Tuesday night, so we know what's on his mind.
LOS ANGELES — I was standing in line for a movie years ago on Lexington Avenue in New York, when an unmistakable voice came from near the front of the line. "Hey, Dick! Hey, Dick! It's Ed Koch!" Who else? He kept on speaking at the top of his voice — he did not have a bottom — over a couple of dozen people, asking me or telling me about some problem at City Hall or maybe complaining about the newspaper, The New York Times, of which I was then City Hall bureau chief.
LOS ANGELES — The 30th president of the United States, who was not such a bad guy, sometimes seems to be remembered only for a single quote: "The business of America is business."
LOS ANGELES —- When I saw my friend Avery Corman, the novelist, for the first time after his wife, Judy, died eight years ago, I was, of course, at a loss for words. I blurted out the first thing that came into my head: "How's your work going?"
LOS ANGELES — On Feb. 1, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially signed an order allowing Japanese-Americans to fight in the U.S. Army. Only a year earlier, the same president had signed an executive order to evacuate 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans living near the West Coast into "relocation camps" in desolate, barren areas from east of the Sierra Nevada to Arkansas.
LOS ANGELES — Is there a wave of nostalgia for the 1930? I wouldn't have thought so, at least not until the Republicans of Michigan passed the bucket of anti-union legislation last week. The procedure they used to pass "right-to-work" was pretty sneaky: no hearings, no public readings, voting by a lame-duck legislature and signature by a governor who had given the impression that such doings and law were not part of his agenda.
LOS ANGELES —- It was Yogi Berra who supposedly said, "It's very hard to predict things, especially about the future." But then he also said, "I never really said all the things I said." He even talked about politics and the presidency: "You know Texas has a lot of electrical votes."
LOS ANGELES — I did not always agree with her politics and most of her policies, but I must say that I always felt a thrill when I saw television pictures of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arriving in some capital, the name of which most Americans could not pronounce. This gigantic jet would roll to a stop and various local leaders would stand in all their military finery at the base of the stairs. The door to the big bird would swing open and out would pop what the Irish would call "this mere slip of a girl."
LOS ANGELES — The 2012 election is all over but the shouting, and the shouting this time seems extraordinarily loud and revealing of the future of American politics.
LOS ANGELES — Mike Allen, for those who don't know, is Washington's insiders' insider. Every morning, sometimes as early as 4 a.m., the Politico.com editor sends out, via e-mail, a newsletter called the Political Playbook, a heads-up for the capital's political junkies.
LOS ANGELES — It was a dark and stormy night over most of the Eastern states, and all through many houses, not a creature was stirring. Water rushed around and nasty politics were forgotten for a bit. In New Jersey, the sting-tongued Republican governor, Chris Christie, said only good words about Democratic President Barack Obama and the federal response to the hurricane invasion of his state. It seems the president called him at midnight Monday and said: "Anything you need. Just call."
WASHINGTON — Beneath his cool exterior, there is passion and a trash-talking crudeness hidden in President Obama.
LOS ANGELES — Assuming that neither man faints on the stage at their final debate on Monday, the Obama-Romney race now depends on three smoking guns rarely discussed by candidates: geography, demography, and getting out the right vote.
LOS ANGELES — For at least the last couple of decades, the Republican Party has been anti-modern, but Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for president, is modern, even post-modern. I don't mean that as a compliment. The man is a serial liar in a society that increasingly tolerates lying and cheating.
LOS ANGELES — Score one for Mitt Romney, at least on style. He did what he had to in the Denver debate, though truth was not his strongest suit. President Obama barely showed up, but he was, overall, a good deal more truthful, especially when he said he'd rather be home celebrating his 20th wedding anniversary.
LOS ANGELES — While President Obama was talking tough at the United Nations and being charming "eye candy" with Barbara Walters and her gang on "The View," the former prime minister of Great Britain, Tony Blair, was being wise on a round of appearances on American political shows. His message: "The United States ... should sort of give up on being loved."