Alan J. Dixon, hero of card-carrying card carriers
August 1, 1980
A reflection on a certain style of Illinois politics as embodied by the late Alan J. Dixon, Illinois Treasurer, Secretary of State, and U.S. Senator. Some politicians seek to do good to make themselves popular. Dixon believed that making himself popular was his work. So vacuous was Al the Pal, so accustomed was he to making big deals of things that didn’t matter and small deals of things that did, that he survived forty-two years in politics without losing an election until his last one. He was succeeded by fellow Democrat Carol Moseley Braun, who was in most ways just as bad, but by then Illinois voters no longer knew the difference between a good senator and a Dixon.
For a journalist, living in a state capital such as Springfield is what living in Yakima must be like for a geologist these days. In each case, one is afforded an unparalleled close-up view of a rare natural phenomenon at work which is at once majestic and terrifying. State government and Mount St. Helens have much in common, especially during legislative sessions. Both erupt regularly in ways that tend to obscure the public's vision, the results of which cause the citizenry much cost and inconvenience. Both are mostly filled with hot gas, although the danger is real enough if they get out of control; both have been responsible (referring here to Springfield's capitol complex district) for widespread physical devastation around their bases. And both (if I may be permitted a small pun) are gradually making ashes of themselves.
My files bulge with data of the most seductive singularity about state government. Lawmakers vote for a pension raise bill they don't know is a pension raise bill and explain it later by saying that they often don't know what they're voting on—thus confirming public opinion. A floor in the brand new state computer center collapses under the weight of a paper cart, after which a Capital Development Board inspector arrives to explain to a TV audience that it happened because—you guessed it—the cart was too heavy. The Legislative Space Needs Commission discusses buying a four-story office building so they can move it across the street to the site of a church which the commission will tear down—which probably will come as a relief to the Lord, who would just as soon have nothing to do with the state either. And the Department of Agriculture spends more than $1,500 to build a basketball court at the state fairgrounds complete with the department's official seal painted at center court at a cost of $11 an hour, all (as department officials later implied) because Ag is such a pressure-cooker agency that its top people needed someplace to let loose.
I know exactly how they feel; I often feel the same way after reading about state government. Indeed, it would be easy to conclude from evidence of this sort that everyone in state government is, as the poet has it, "Rushing to and fro, busily employed in idleness." I have said that very thing more than once. But there are, laboring away in this lush vineyard, intelligent people who are dedicated and sensitive to public needs.
One of these worthies is Alan J. Dixon, your secretary of state. I know this because he told me. On July 17, Dixon sent me a press release in which he announced a new contract between the secretary of state's office and the Polaroid Corporation which, he assured me, "will result in an improved Illinois Driver's License and Identification Card, and will save the State of Illinois more than $1 million." The contract apparently will (if options are exercised) last fifty-eight months. During that time it will save state taxpayers $l.28 million or about 22 grand a month. At the moment, the state spends 43.75 cents for each license card; under the new contract it will spend only 34.60 cents.
"Now," I said to myself as I read the news, "we're getting somewhere.”
Not content with merely reducing the price of the Illinois license card, Dixon has undertaken to improve it as well. This is not big stuff as stuff goes these days. What with NBC in third place and McDonald's earnings down for the second year in a row, improving driver's license cards doesn't seem like much of an act of public service. But we must remember that Springfield is a small world in which small things loom large, not the least of which are reputations. Dixon told me, "We improved the license immeasurably with the addition of the photograph. Now we've improved it more."
For example, I had assumed that the driver's photo on each card made it impossible to pull stunts of the sort I used to pull as a boy, such as borrowing the license of an older but physically similar colleague and using it as identification to buy booze illegally. Apparently young people today are just as thirsty and no more law-abiding, and have taken to cutting out the license photos and switching them.
I applaud this sign of initiative in our otherwise lumpen youth, even as I join Dixon in bemoaning the result. But Dixon is a true son of St. Clair County, and is not content to merely bemoan what might be bettered. "We have overlayed [sic] my signature and the State of Illinois Seal on the driver's picture," he says. (The misspellings in the secretary's release are his responsibility, not mine. I attribute them to the fact that men of action seldom have time for the more erudite pursuits.) "This will make it very, very difficult for anyone to cut out and switch pictures." I'm sure it will, (though this apparent compulsion of state officials to slap official seals on everything is a subject that deserves careful study).
The new tamper-proofing will also make it very, very difficult for anyone not to be reminded of the name, "Alan J. Dixon." I don't know how the rest of you feel about having Alan J. Dixon's signature scrawled across your mug, but I regard it as an unwarranted case of the state sticking its business into my nose.
But I quibble. Making the license card tamper-proof is not the only way Dixon has improved this most vital of civilization's artifacts. Beginning September 1, the new card will be smaller, the size of a standard credit card. "I have heard complaints from Illinois motorists who couldn't fit the old license into their wallets and couldn't trim them because of the lamination," the secretary explained. This is one of those symptoms (drug addiction and divorce rates are others) by which we diagnose modern man's decline into decrepitude. It strikes me that this is not a problem that would have long stumped our pioneer forebears, for example, but perhaps I am being overly romantic about the latter’s virtues. I checked, and the dreaded lamination is vulnerable to trimming using any ordinary scissors. As for wallets, well, mine accommodates my old license card just fine. I always thought that one buys a wallet that fits one's cards and not the other way around, but then I'm old-fashioned. Indeed, I regard the new cards as part of the trend toward down-sizing evident everywhere in the economy. I wish to note only that a similar adjustment was made some half-century ago, when the federal government shrank the nation's paper money, possibly so it would fit more easily in people's wallets. And we all know what's happened to our money since.
Perhaps I'm being overly pessimistic. In any event, Dixon said, "I've tested the new size personally and I can assure the Illinois public the license will fit anything that restaurant, gasoline, bank, or store cards would go into." (Including debt?) That ought to quiet once and for all this talk of state officials not earning their money. Here is a leader.
Impressive as the new license card is, however, I find it hard to tip my hat to Mr. Dixon. The man is running for the United States Senate, after all. When we bargain with the Ruskies over a disarmament treaty we need a man who knows more about the subject than how to make the resulting document fit conveniently into an attaché case. Now if Dixon had stumbled onto a way to make license cards from Illinois coal, that would be something worth cheering. I wouldn't think such a trick would be too hard for him. For years he's been making big deals out of nothing. ●
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