SAM SMITH, 1994 – I was recently described in an otherwise kind article in Washington’s City Paper as a “political gadfly.” This was neither the first time nor will it be the last.
Gadflies are only barely further along in the evolutionary chain of things than maggots and slugs. They are insects frequently found flying around cattle or resting placidly on a pile of excrement. As readers well know, I never am at rest sitting on a pile of shit.
Being called a gadfly is a little like being bitten by one. It’s also, notes Jon Rowe, like Ralph Nader being called a “self-styled consumer advocate.” Where, Rowe wonders, does one go to get a license to become an properly appointed consumer advocate?
People in Washington who call other people gadflies tend to be either players or people who wish they were. A player is someone trying to be Assistant Secretary of HUD, someone who represents a major polluter and claims to practice environmental law, someone who is paid large sums of money to shout down Eleanor Clift on national TV or who pays large sums of money to get politicians to wrestle with — and ultimately defeat — their own conscience.
Players are annoyed by gadflies because they won’t play according to the players’ rules. On the other hand, gadflies don’t clutter up the bureaucracy making dull speeches, and they don’t create toxic waste sites or corrupt the political system. They tend to eat Mr. Tyson’s chicken rather than fly on his planes. And at the end of the day, they have less explaining to do to their children.
Players tend to be quite insecure which is why they need such an elaborate support system, including the Washingtonian magazine, the Gridiron Dinner, the Washington Post Style section and the Diane Rehm Show. Players consider themselves serious; gadflies not. Russell Baker, a serious man, once addressed this delusion in a column in which he pointed out the difference between being serious and being solemn. Baker observed that children are almost always serious, but that they start to lose the trait in adolescence. Washington is the capital of solemnity but few of its elite are truly serious.
Gadflies, on the other hand, are usually serious. A gadfly tends to be someone with ideas, energy and a modicum of talent but who lacks a PR firm, ghostwriter and a proper flair for networking. A gadfly is someone who actually wants to get something done, but often can’t — largely because of all the players in the way.
EF Schumacher once said, “We must do what we conceive to be the right thing, and not bother our heads or burden our souls with whether we are going to be successful. Because if we don’t do the right thing, we’ll be doing the wrong thing, and we will just be part of the disease, and not a part of the cure.”
Gadflies would agree. They think for themselves. But in Washington thought is something players purchase, just like they purchase gas, condoms or political access. People who think are considered just another part of the service industry with commensurate compensation and social regard.
When gadflies feel like using a bovine analogy, they prefer to think of themselves as mavericks — animals whose only sin has been to wander off from their colleagues. They also drink upstream from the herd which, if you know anything about cattle, is not a bad idea.
Take a run-of-the-mill gadfly such as myself and then some average players — say the editorial board the Washington Post — and compare their records over a couple of decades. The gadfly approach to freeways, urban policy, Vietnam, the environment and Bill Clinton will, I think, hold up pretty well. The problem gadflies face is not that they are irrelevant or wrong but that their timing is a bit off. The FBI used to categorize members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade as “premature anti-fascists.” Similarly, many gadflies are just moderates of an age that has not yet arrived.