The Undergraduate Council has had a long series of foul-ups. They lost $40,000, although they found it later. They can't remember a meeting two years ago, in which they allegedly passed a constitutional amendment on whether the council can remove a popularly elected official from office. The recent crisis concerning the expulsion of Vice President Errant John A. Burton '01 seems to be merely a marker in a long line of council crises. But look closer: the impeachment scandal may actually be something the council has done right.
The age of civilized discourse is over. The overly serious members of Harvard student government fail to realize that "we brought you the Fly-By" fails to inspire the fervor of the people. In today's MTV world, the historic Lincoln-Douglas debates that captivated pre-Civil-War audiences would air right after the infomercial on automatically inflating pencils.
As everyone has learned from Jesse "The Body" Ventura, the "Jerry Springer Show" and the Brooklyn Museum, sensation sells. With the Burton impeachment trial, the council has now followed the lead of the Fox Network and other high-profile runner-ups to join the Sensationalist School of Public Relations. Its motto: if you can't beat 'em, slither under 'em.
The perennial problem with our student government is student disinterest. Voter turnout for the presidential election is less than 50 percent. Each year the council wonders how to increase the tie between the undergraduates the governing body that "represents" them. Perhaps a regular corner in The Crimson? Maybe each member should hold office hours? A newsletter published on the web? All these suggestions to no avail. The majority of students remain blissfully ignorant of what exactly the council does.
The impeachment is probably the first thing that many students have heard about council affairs all year. It has single-handedly shot the council's ratings if not through the roof, then at least out of the basement. Thanks to the trial, The Boston Globe has taken an interest in student politics. What else besides a juicy scandal could have sent spectators to council meetings? Plus, the council now not only appears interesting, but also hip. Our own president was impeached. The council is following the latest national trend.
Unfortunately, the council's scandal did not have quite the same flair as the nationally televised Monicagate. Clinton's impeachment was riveted around an affair, a cigar and the definition of sex. Burton's impeachment centered around shoplifting, 180 buttons and the definition of "freely available resource." "I did not lie to the Election Commission" doesn't have the ring of "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."
Due to Burton's shyness, eager undergraduates seeking pre-Simpsons entertainment last Sunday night had to turn to the vice president's yellow-ribbon wearing entourage. At the trial, anti-impeachment students sported stylish yellow ribbons pinned to their lapels, reminiscent of the red ribbons worn to commemorate those who have died of AIDS. I applaud these individuals for co-opting this brilliant advertising campaign. Some might have hesitated to equate victims of this century's greatest plague with the plight of an Ivy League student embroiled in minor-league political controversy. These courageous warriors for justice refused to abandon their quest for increased visibility for the sake of mere taste.
Burton's supporters also made their own contribution to the ratings by framing the issue in terms of Burton's race. The presence of the head of Harvard branch of the NAACP, as well as S. Allen Counter, director of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, at the council meeting that discussed the constitutionality of Burton's trial made the scandal juicy enough to merit a Boston Globe article. As most people know from the antics of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, race is one of the surest means to generate interest among a population.
The issue of race in the impeachment trial flared briefly, but died just as quickly because it had little merit. Indeed, the entire saga of Burton-centered controversies will most likely fade into the student body's collective consciousness. The best scandals (Watergate, the Teapot Dome) succeed because they contain kernels of truth. With regard to the council's controversy, members of the body are still unsure whether or not Driskell and Burton actually overspent their campaign limit. This scandal was based on vague half-truths, at best.