Denver Bar Association
January 2008
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A Porsche is a Porsche, Of Course, Of Course

by Craig Eley

How’s this for a New Year’s resolution — Conquer your ego. If any resolution is attainable, it’s this one. It requires no exercise, no gym membership. You don’t have to set aside any time for it nor master any technical knowledge. There is no book to read, and you can eat anything you want. Best of all, not only doesn’t it cost anything, it can save you lots of money.

Years ago, when the Bar convention was held at the Broadmoor Hotel (back when there was a Bar convention), I attended the President’s Reception. It required an extra layout of cash for the ticket, but Corbin Bernsen, an actor from the television show "L.A. Law," was going to speak, so I figured it was worth it. "L.A. Law" was an immensely popular program in its heyday, and was actually credited with substantially increasing the number of college grads applying to law school in the ’90s. Bernsen’s character, Arnie Becker, was a grasping divorce lawyer who started the series’ run driving a Jaguar, and ended it in possession of a Bentley.

Of course, before the star attraction of the President’s Reception could be heard, we had to listen to remarks from, appropriately enough, the CBA president. Frank Plaut, later a district court judge, was the president that year. He gave a speech in which he urged us to improve the image of lawyers by eschewing some of the more ostentatious trappings of power and wealth. In particular, he asked lawyers to give up their Porsches and Mercedeses. This was the perfect segue for the appearance of Bernsen, who, in Arnie Becker character, began by exclaiming "Give up our Porsches and Mercedeses? What is this man talking about?"

The Mercedes dealers of Colorado need not have worried because as far as I can tell, no one took Plaut’s words to heart. The personal statement, "I became a lawyer to help people," too often takes a back seat to, "Look what I can afford!"

I was reminded of this during the past year when I read of the travails of Rev. Acen Phillips, a Denver minister who was accused of questionable insurance dealings. What caught my interest in the articles written about him was the fact that he drove a Rolls Royce. I pondered how a minister could ask his congregation for money to shore up the ever-faltering church budget or reach deep into their pockets to help, as the Bible says, "the least of these," while parading around town in a Rolls Royce. A minister who seeks to lead by example would not, in my opinion, select such a vehicle as his personal conveyance. To do so appears to me to be a classic case of a man placing his ego above his cause, to the detriment of his cause.

Just to the south of Denver, the curse of an overriding ego has stricken one Tom Tancredo. Now, it goes without saying that to run for President of the United States one should possess a good self-image. But Tancredo’s ego has managed to earn him the appellation of hypocrite — not only among Democrats, but among his fellow Republicans.

Long before he decided to be the standard-bearer for immigration issues, Tancredo was the head of the Colorado Term Limits Coalition. From that position, he launched a run for Congress, and he ran in a primary against a number of other well-known Republican candidates. The vote would be so divided that it was anyone’s guess who would win, and in that district, winning the Republican primary was tantamount to winning the general election because Republicans far outnumbered Democrats.

In the campaign, Tancredo pledged that, if elected, he would limit himself to three terms in Congress. Partly because of that pledge, he received the personal endorsement of former Sen. Bill Armstrong, a very influential Republican figure and a strong term limits proponent. Sen. Armstrong went so far as to record radio commercials for Tancredo in his own voice. With that assistance, Tancredo won the primary with just 26 percent of the vote.

Six years later, when the term limits bell finally tolled for Tom Tancredo, he couldn’t bring himself to listen to it. Instead, he broke his promise and ran for a fourth term.

Of all the promises a politician makes, most are not within his or her power to deliver without the cooperation of other legislators. But the one promise that can be fulfilled by the politician alone is the promise to limit his or her terms of office.

Tancredo was not the first Coloradan to break his pledge to limit the number of terms he would serve. He was preceded by Congressman Scott McGinnis and Denver Mayor Wellington Webb. But as the former head of the Colorado term limits movement, his betrayal of the cause has harmed not only his own credibility, but the term limits movement itself.

Politicians who break their term limits pledges generally use as an excuse the sudden realization that their work is so important that it must be carried on, and by none other than themselves. Either their egos have overpowered their sense of integrity to cause them to actually believe this, or their love of power will not permit them to be true to their word. The truth, not that it matters to some politicians, is probably best expressed in that old saying that the cemetery is full of indispensable people.

Ego runs just as rampant among some Democrats. In the last presidential election, and again in this one, former Democratic Sen. John Edwards spoke about his "two Americas."

As he puts it, "There is one America that is struggling to get by, and another America that can buy anything it wants."

In his campaigns, Sen. Edwards has consistently claimed as his constituency the America that is struggling to get by. He pledges to work for universal health care and the eradication of poverty. So, in January 2007, his detractors were delighted to report that he had moved into a new 28,000 square-foot home, a home that reportedly cost six million dollars. One magazine headline cleverly crowed: "There Are Two Americas, and John Edwards’ New House Takes Up Almost All of One of Them."

Now, John Edwards is not a political novice. He must have known the disconnect that would occur between his populist message and his extravagant new home. Yet, he built it anyway. When confronted about his new mansion during an appearance at a college campus, he defended his decision by saying he had worked hard for the money he had earned.

But that isn’t really the point. No one should begrudge a wealthy person the right to spend his money as he sees fit. But what kind of status consciousness must be present for this man to damage his presidential aspirations, and consequently the causes he says he champions, just for a new manse? Common sense would dictate that someone running for any office as the champion of the poor should put off building such a monument to himself until after the election. But ofttimes, ego triumphs over common sense.

Pundits have wondered how many people could have been helped, how many college scholarships could have been funded, how many lives could have been permanently improved with that $6 million. Through his conspicuous self-indulgence, however, Sen. Edwards has placed his ego above his cause.

Alas, John Edwards isn’t the only Democrat with an edifice complex.

It has been revealed that former Vice President Al Gore lives in a mansion that consumes 20 times more energy than the average American home.

Al Gore, who has won an Oscar and the Nobel Prize for his documentary on global climate change, has played into the hands of the global warming naysayers by showing that while he wishes for the rest of us to cut down on our energy usage, this is a sacrifice he himself is not willing to make.

Gore defends himself by stating that he purchases carbon credits to offset the effect on the climate of the energy consumption of his 10,000 square-foot home (one of three that he owns). Even if that excuse is valid, his detractors say that it points out that while the wealthy can afford to buy carbon credits as guilt payments for an extravagant lifestyle, the rest of us are expected to huddle in our hovels with the thermostat set at 55.

The fact remains, if we all did as Gore does, instead of as he says, the environmental results would be disastrous.

As I wrote this, Gore was in Oslo, receiving the Nobel Prize. In his acceptance speech, he preached to the United States and China, urging them to make bold moves on climate change or "stand accountable before history for their failure to act." He added that, by ignoring climate change, these nations risk "mutually assured destruction." He continued by declaring:

We, the human species, are confronting a planetary emergency — a threat to the survival of our civilization that is gathering ominous and destructive potential even as we gather here.

So, it is not an overstatement to conclude that Gore believes that his global warming crusade is about nothing less than literally saving the world. Yet, his hubris apparently does not allow him to live in a reasonably-sized, energy efficient home, from which he could lead by example. He has the financial ability to easily make such a home a showplace for the latest environmentally-friendly technology, but he has not done so.

Not even to save the world.

Even though most of us aren’t out to save the world, perhaps with the dawning of this new year we should reconsider Frank Plaut’s words. Would checking our egos a little improve the image of lawyers? Could the money saved by not purchasing status symbols be used for more worthwhile purposes? Would we even feel better about ourselves, and serve as a good example to our children?

Why don’t you give it a try? I promise it won’t hurt, and it might even help.

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