Capitol Hill Exodus

CONGRESSMEN and women of the 1990s are fleeing their duties by the droves. Just this year 46 Representatives have announced their retirement: 28 Democrats, 18 Republicans. Nor are Senators sitting pat. Led by majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine, nine Senators are heading for the exit.

Some of the retirements conform to the natural order of things. Seniors, as in all occupations, feel ready to step down. Younger men and women wish to spend more time with their growing families. Those in between want to earn more money in the private sector while they still can.

A number of incumbents feel vulnerable because of redistricting mandated after the last census. The popularity of the idea of term limits has some office-holders thinking of jumping before they're pushed.

But a deeper theme runs through many departing speeches: Politics just isn't much fun for the players anymore. Campaigning is becoming more negative and more expensive, with victory often depending on TV ads. And as if pleasing constituents were not hard enough, the winner will find himself or herself surrounded by lobbyists of every persuasion.

Few retirees go quietly without mentioning the extraordinary acrimony of politics today. Opponents and the press consider little sacred when it comes to digging up dirt, relevant or not. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, Harry Truman liked to say, but he never had it so hot. He thought it was an outrage that his daughter Margaret's singing voice should be criticized. Could he have imagined the personal aspersions the Clintons, just for one instance, have had to suffer?

While these sideshows and high-pressure lobbying are degrading politics, the grave problems of the '90s require ever more intelligence, courage, and devotion on the part of public officials. It is disheartening to see an exodus of some of the best and the brightest. But this only makes it more imperative for politicians, voters, and media to fight the temptation of cynicism and to insist on the possibility - the necessity - of honest and effective leadership, even in difficult times.

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