Easy Chair — From the July 2014 issue

Angle to Montgomery

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Justin Barkley and I met as freshmen in college. He was the soft-spoken kid with an Alabama accent who lived down the hall. His roommates were all jocks of one type or another, so he spent a lot of time with the misfits in my suite that first year. We fell out of touch after graduation, though I heard about the big milestones: marriage; law school; kids one, two, and three. Now here he was in my inbox, the sender of a mass email to a blind-copied list: “I wanted you to be among the first to know that, after much prayer and careful deliberation, I have decided to run for a seat in the state legislature.”

Spencer Bachus, the eleven-term congressman from Birmingham, Alabama, was retiring; Paul DeMarco, the state representative from Justin’s district, was running to replace him; and Justin was running in the Republican primary for DeMarco’s open seat. There was an ask in Justin’s email, but it was subtle — a link to contribute to the campaign “if you’re so inclined.”

A survey of young Americans conducted earlier this year found that only 7 percent disagree with the statement “Elected officials seem to be motivated by selfish reasons.” About the same percentage think that elected officials share their priorities. Meanwhile, things are looking a bit sunnier for the current U.S. Congress — their disapproval rating is down to 83 percent, from a high of 86 percent last November.

These numbers have no apparent effect on our nation’s politicians, who are a separate species of American, greedier, vainer, almost inhuman in their willingness to debase themselves while striving for personal glory. As far as I knew, Justin had none of these traits. The question, then, was unavoidable: Was my friend secretly born a monster, or was he about to be made one? Many of the great villains of science fiction and fantasy are humans so disfigured by malevolence that they are no longer recognizable. Perhaps mild-mannered Justin was actually a Tom Riddle, an Anakin Skywalker, a Harvey Dent. If so, I was determined to stop the transformation before it happened (or, failing that, watch it take place).

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