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They’ll never put his face up on Mount Rushmore. But if you are looking for a symbol for the way politics is being practised in the US these days, you should consider a man by the name of Johnny Paycheck.
The late Paycheck (born Donald Eugene Lytle) was a country singer who spent a considerable portion of his 64 years living up to the title of his song I’m the Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised). Nevertheless, during a career punctuated by stays in correctional facilities and battles with drugs and drink, he managed to produce a piece of work that summed up the spirit of his times – his 1977 hit Take This Job and Shove It.
As the US settled into a funk that President Jimmy Carter called a “crisis of confidence”, Paycheck struck a chord with his fellow Americans by paying tribute to the sheer pleasure of quitting.
“You better not try to stand in/my way as I’m walking out the door,” he sang. “Take this job and shove it/I ain’t working here no more.”
Paycheck’s body finally gave out on him in 2003, but I think it could be argued that his spirit lives on today in corridors of power across our republic. In a broad swath of the political class, it has become cool to quit in a Johnny Paycheck, show-’em-what-you’re made-of way. Why debate, after all, when you can just take a walk?
The latest example of this tendency came in the form of comments last week by Jon Kyl, a Republican senator from Arizona and a member of the “supercommittee” seeking ways to reduce the US budget deficit. Appearing at a luncheon organised by conservative groups, Mr Kyl promised that any talk of cuts in the Pentagon’s budget during the panel’s deliberations would prompt a Paycheck-like reaction on his part.
“I am off of the committee if we are going to talk about further defence cuts,” he said.
Nor should anyone think that Mr Kyl is kidding. Walking out the door with a flourish has become standard operating procedure for him and many other US politicians. In June, Mr Kyl and Eric Cantor, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, walked out of bipartisan budget talks to protest against raising taxes. A few months earlier, Democratic legislators in Wisconsin left the state entirely rather than be part of a quorum needed to vote on a proposal to limit the rights of public employee unions.
The most famous of all political quitters in this country is, of course, Sarah Palin. With 18 months to go in her first term as governor of Alaska, she resigned in 2009 for reasons that I suspect might have made sense to a restless soul like Paycheck. Quitting her job, Ms Palin said, was the only way to avoid taking a quitter’s way out.
“Life is too short to compromise time and resources,” she explained. “It may be tempting and more comfortable to just keep your head down, plod along, and appease those who demand: ‘Sit down and shut up’, but that’s the worthless, easy path; that’s a quitter’s way out. And a problem in our country today is apathy. It would be apathetic to just hunker down and ‘go with the flow’... Only dead fish ‘go with the flow’.”
So far, Ms Palin’s post-gubernatorial swim upstream has left her supporters guessing at whether she will run for the 2012 Republican nomination for president. But the quitting spirit has already surfaced on the campaign trail in the person of Rick Perry, the Texas governor who is running for the GOP nomination to face President Barack Obama next year. Although still gainfully employed, Mr Perry has thought out loud in the past about the possibility that his home state could quit the United States.
As for me, I can’t quit thinking about the Paycheckian turn in our politics. Whatever your opinion of old-school country music, there is no denying it tends toward the tragic. In Take This Job and Shove It, Paycheck walks out of a factory where he has worked for 15 years because economic difficulties have destroyed his home. “My woman done left and took all the reason I was working for,” he sings. All that remains is the thrill of quitting and fantasies of revenge against his “fool” of a foreman (and remember: Paycheck’s audience also knew him as the singer of (Pardon Me), I’ve Got Someone to Kill).
Somehow, I imagine that Johnny Paycheck, if he were still among us, would feel quite at home on Capitol Hill these days.
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