Legislative Illiterates

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I’m still tickled by Eric Holder’s admission that he hadn’t read Arizona’s anti-illegal- immigrant law before he furiously denounced it. Since the law is only 16 pages long, I would expect even a busy Attorney General to find time to read it. I wonder whether he treats other documents in the same way.

I mean, when Holder buys a house, does he just sign the deed without reading it, trusting implicitly in whatever the seller told him? How about the mortgage documents?

I know he didn’t have to read his oath of office; it was recited to him. But does he customarily read his legal briefs, or does he just get somebody else to write them, put them in an envelope, and send them to the courts? How about the briefs of his opponents? Does he read them, either? Maybe he just goes into court and talks about them. Do the judges notice, or have they, too, fallen out of the custom of reading?

A friend of mine once worked in a university office in which she acted as secretary to a large number of committees. In many cases, the chairmen of these committees couldn’t be bothered to handle their own business. There were many days, therefore, when my friend could be found writing a report from Committee A to Committee B, then a critical response from Committee B, then an outraged rebuttal from Committee A. This was a good thing, because at all points there was an intelligent person carefully reading the correspondence. The Holder affair is different. It suggests that while people are writing and speaking, nobody maybe actually reading.

I can picture how things would have gone in the past, if Holder’s type of illiteracy had prevailed. We would find media reports like these:

“Moses, leader of the Israelites, admitted today that he had never, in fact, read any of the laws associated with his name. ‘I’ve never really had the time to sit down and read these, what do you call them, these Twelve Commandments,’ he told a tribal investigative committee. ‘But I doubt that they contain any alleged prohibition on adultery.’ ”

“This Wednesday, Socrates was reported to be walking the streets of Athens, unaware of his sentence of death. When asked whether he had received an order to commit suicide, he asked, ‘Suicide? No, I don’t think I’ve seen anything about suicide. But we all have so much to read these days, I guess I just didn’t get around to studying the document in question.’ ”

“Interviewed at his home in Alexandria, St. Mark commented on the much-disputed conclusion of his gospel. Feisty, though in frail health, the aged saint refused to speculate on whether the gospel concludes with the Long Ending or the Short Ending, or just stops with chapter 16, verse 8. ‘Personally, I prefer the Long Ending — if that’s the one with the snakes. It is the one with the snakes, isn’t it? Always liked snakes. Of course, I’m not the right one to ask — haven’t read the thing in years. I hear that St. Luke did a much better job.’ ”

“Subjected to hostile criticism at a town meeting in a suburb of Boston, John Hancock denied any knowledge of the contents of the so-called Declaration of Independence. Reminded that he had signed the document, Hancock replied, ‘Yes, I signed it, but that business about “sacred honor” is a new one on me.’ ”

“The administration is in crisis today over the discovery that when President Lincoln signed the proclamation freeing slaves in the seceded states, he actually thought he was freeing slaves in his home state of Illinois. ‘Perhaps I was misinformed,’ the president commented. ‘Nevertheless, we must all agree that freedom is what makes this country great.’ Informed that there were no slaves in Illinois, the president was heard to answer, ‘No? Maybe not. In my job, you don’t get to read every newspaper that comes out.’ ”

“One week after the inauguration, the meaning of a passage in President Kennedy’s address remains obscure. The passage at issue reads, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’ With people throughout the nation writing to ask what the mysterious passage implies, a high-ranking White House spokesman said, ‘The president doesn’t always have the opportunity to read through his speeches before he delivers them, but he suspects that the line was inserted as a witticism during one of many all-night drafting sessions, and his writers neglected to remove it from the final copy.’ ”

“Erik E. Eriksen, grand old man of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, granted a frank interview on Thursday in which he revealed the thinking behind his committee’s decision to award the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize to Albert Arnold Gore, Jr. The revelation was prompted by a question about Eriksen’s assessment of Gore’s writings and public addresses. Speaking in clear though heavily accented English, Eriksen replied, ‘My assessment? I do not have an assessment of these . . . of these . . . how do you call them? “Writings.” I have not read them. None of us has read them. They are probably just the same kind of nonsense you see in that film he made. We did not award the prize for any possible accomplishments of Mr. Gore. We awarded it because we dislike the United States.’ ”

All strictly fanciful. Equally fanciful is the idea that a frank interview with a Supreme Court justice will ever be conducted — an interview frank enough to elicit the obvious truth.

“Interviewer: Justice X, many compliments have been paid to the literary style of the Constitution. I am sure you must have spent many hours admiring its combination of simplicity and scope. May we have your comments on that aspect of your work?

“Justice X (chuckles): Why yes, I’m sure you must be right. I’ve never read it all the way through.

“Interviewer: Pardon me?

“Justice X: Well, I don’t know whether I ever read it. Parts, of course. At least I think I have. They’re mentioned in court. “Interviewer: But you don’t study it? You don’t quote it in your opinions?

“Justice X: Not very much. Anyway, the clerks do that.

What I do is interpret it. What? Didn’t you know that?”

It’s too bad, isn’t it, that Holder’s honesty about his reading habits will probably keep him from ever being appointed a Supreme Court justice. He’d feel so much at home with the other illiterates.

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