Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 4
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
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Rush Holt Talks With PDS Students About Obama, Congress, the Constitution

Ellen Gilbert

Representative Rush Holt (D-12) went to school last week — Princeton Day School, that is. Speaking to students in teacher George Sanderson’s early morning Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics class, he talked about attending the recent Presidential Inauguration, his obligations as a Representative (his preferred title to “Congressman”), and his belief that cynicism about government is beginning to recede.

“I probably know a lot of your folks,” said Mr. Holt as he asked students for their names and hometowns. Concluding that he represented about half of them, he noted that his constituency includes 720,000 people in 44 towns. After observing that he had been an unlikely candidate for election in the first place, he said that he is now beginning his sixth term in Congress, and that he will probably seek another.

He was quick to point out that his job “is not about the next election; it’s about the last election.” Unlike many politicians who are eager to ensure that they will get votes in upcoming elections, Mr. Holt referred to the current “two-year lease” he’s been given “to do certain things. I’m always trying to understand the values of the people in the district.” In spite of out-polling then-candidate Barack Obama and Senator Frank Lautenberg in the district in the November election, however, Mr. Holt said that he is sensitive to those areas where support for him was weak: “these people are trying to tell me something.”

After sitting about a dozen rows behind the podium at last week’s inauguration, Mr. Holt said that he is “still walking on air.” Noting that it “verged on poetry,” but “was not grandiose” in the manner of John F. Kennedy or Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address (“the greatest speech in American history”), he encouraged the class to think about the “bold” things that Mr. Obama had to say. Mr. Holt suggested that the President was steeling the country for tough times, emphasizing that what makes a country great is “the hard work, dedication, and belief of ordinary people in their government.”

Mr. Holt was eight years old when he attended Dwight Eisenhower’s inaugural in 1957. It was the first time he had witnessed an inauguration, and it made headlines when the local newspaper ran the story, “Holt Addresses Cub Scout Pack on Inauguration.” The reason for all the attention, he said, was because of his father, Rush Dew Holt, a prominent Virginia Senator.

Asked by one of the students about “pork barrel,” the appropriation of government spending for projects that are intended primarily to benefit particular constituents, Mr. Holt said that there are times when the practice is defensible. “Washington is not aware of how we’re affected by suburban sprawl here in the most densely populated state,” he observed, referring to his efforts to save open spaces in the district. Recalling William Proxmire’s “Golden Fleece” awards for wasteful government spending, he observed that there actually are times when studying things like fruit (drosophila) flies and other seemingly esoteric subjects have real scientific value.

In response to another question about the separation of church and state and the presence of religion at the inaugural ceremonies, Mr. Holt turned to the Constitution, describing it as arguably “the greatest invention in human history,” which “gives people the freedom to practice religion or not.” Since Mr. Obama is a “spiritually-oriented human being,” he said, it was “not inappropriate” for him to include religious moments at the inauguration. Another student’s question about the changing face of the American population led Mr. Holt to admit that “Congress is rarely in the lead” about a lot of things. He pointed out that it had failed to see what the people in this country already recognized: that a mixed-race presidential candidate could be elected by a large majority. With a passing reference to the tradition of “stodgy old people in the Senate,” Mr. Holt admitted that Congress is “not ahead of the game in passing laws about things like technology. Nobody said that this government system is efficient,” Mr. Holt observed. “We just say that it is the best.”

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