"Same knife cut the sheep cut the goat"
—Cajun singer Horace Trahan, from the song of the same name.
You don't learn to cover government by covering the United States government. You learn to cover government sitting on a hard plastic chair, at night, on the second floor of a country town hall.
There, you will see, in miniature and only 10 feet away, everything you will ever see in the cool marble halls of state and national government. You will do this work on convenience store coffee, an inky, overcooked beverage little dreamed of by your betters.
If after 10 years the work hasn't broken you, and you haven't moved on to something that pays decently, you will learn a few things.
In Massachusetts, where I spent a couple decades driving often snowy roads that led to town halls, we call suburban and small-town councilors "selectmen."
There is always an odd number of selectmen, to avoid tie votes, and they do the business of the town. They appropriate money for snow removal, approve new stop signs, grant licenses to 10-car used car lots and perform every other crucial but boring bit of municipal work that can be done.
They do this in front of a live audience of six people, and an at-home audience of dozens who watch via the town's local access cable station.
From time to time, on a board of five, or even three, selectmen, there will be a divide so great that every vote will be decided 3-2 or 2-1, which means that the selectmen, having fought over new playground equipment for the town park, the cost of candy for the town hall lawn Easter egg hunt, or the price of toner used by the town clerk's office, have cut too deep.
One of them called another one a "liar." Dark things were said about two of the selectmen being "in the pocket" of a local land developer who wants to build condos out on the old Coleman farm.
So, all votes are 3-2, or 2-1, because selectmen can no longer hear each other over the screaming of past fights about who to appoint to the water board. Eventually, one selectman, burned out by a couple years of hate, will resign. Voters will generally vote out two more because the board has failed to straighten out those drainage problems on Mills Road.
It gets better, but it is only a small board of selectmen in a town with only two convenience stores. They can't make too many mistakes that can't be straightened out by the next board.
As a reporter, you like the stories, or you do at first. You come back to the paper with a notebook full of crackling, conspiratorial, hateful quotes, and your story is as spiny as a porcupine. A lot of people read those stories, and you are happy.
But unless you are a reporter who thinks that your story is more important than the event you're covering, you notice that the board of selectmen doesn't accomplish anything anymore. They fight like brave dogs, but Mills Road is still under a foot of standing water every time it rains.
The people of the United States and their elected representatives have cut so deep that every vote is 3-2, and Mills Road is swamped.
American politics is interesting as all hell right now, but if you want to know the truth of it, properly run government is boring. Taxes get collected. Bills get paid. Decisions get made. It's as exciting as sitting down with your husband or wife to figure out the month's budget.
Town government is small, but it taught me how to follow the trail and the cost of hate.
Same knife cut the sheep cut the goat.
Dion's just-released book, a collection of his best recent columns is called "Devil's Elbow: Dancing in the Ashes of America." It is available in paperback from Amazon.com, and for Kindle, Google Play, Nook and iBooks. To find out more about Marc Munroe Dion and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.
Photo credit: knerri61 at Pixabay