George Pyle: Protect Ben Franklin’s gift to America

Can there be anything more American than the Post Office?

It helps that the history of what is now officially known as the United States Postal Service basically begins as the handiwork of the most American of us all, Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin worked for a long time to wangle himself the appointment, first as postmaster of Philadelphia, then as postmaster general of the colonies under the British crown and then, in 1775, as the first postmaster general of the United States.

It was a position he held even as he helped write and then sign the Declaration of Independence and, in true American fashion, it was for Franklin a healthy mixture of self-promotion and public-spiritedness.

Being postmaster not only brought a salary, it helped printer and politician Franklin make contacts throughout the 13 rather distant and disjointed colonies, and also with the powerful back in Great Britain. The job was an asset to him in leading the Revolution, in promoting the arts and sciences and in building America into the great nation it became.

Franklin turned a slipshod and corrupt system into an Enlightenment model of efficiency and service. He ended the practice of allowing local postmasters to deliver some newspapers but not others. He greatly increased the speed of postal delivery, published lists of people who had letters waiting for them at the local post office and offered them the service of having mail delivered to their homes, rather than having to call for it, for a penny.

And -- are you listening, Jared Kushner -- when Franklin left the post to become ambassador to France, he had his son-in-law appointed in his stead.

The Post Office connected this country and did much to build it through an efficient and affordable method of communication. It provided invaluable accounts of the real human experiences felt in the Civil War and World War II. And, perhaps most importantly, in “Miracle on 34th Street,” it helped prove in a court of law that Santa Claus is real.

And now, in our nation’s hour of great need, it may be the bloodstream that saves American democracy itself by allowing all of us to vote in national and state elections with minimal exposure to the deadly and stubborn coronavirus.

Unless, that is, our pitiful excuse for a president gets his way. Which will only happen if his many enablers in Congress and elsewhere in what remains of the Republican Party allow him to get away with it.

The president has been uncharacteristically honest. He wants to defund and emasculate the USPS so that it will not be up to the strain of many millions of voters exercising their franchise through the mail. He repeats, and may even believe himself, the outright lie that mail-in elections are prone to fraud.

And he makes no secret of the fact that he is doing so because it could well toss the whole of the election into chaos, which even he may see is the only way he might hold on to the legal immunity that goes with his job. Delaying the delivery of ballots, arguing over postmarks and deadlines, is apparently a plan the administration will use, not so much to steal the election but to so muck it up with lawsuits and lies that Republicans will have grounds to claim there hasn’t really been one.

Post offices around the country are cutting back their hours, sorting machines are being inexplicably mothballed, there’s a hiring freeze and no overtime allowed. Ben Franklin’s old office has been defiled by the appointment of a postmaster whose main qualifications seem to be that he is a big donor to the president’s campaigns and an investor in companies that compete with the USPS.

The Post Office was kneecapped back in 2006 by a goofy law that requires it to pre-fund billions in employee health care costs, something no other business or government agency does. The general slowdown of the economy due to the pandemic, which this administration has also botched, has cut USPS revenue, and efforts in Congress to infuse the system with needed funds have been blocked by the Republican leadership of the Senate.

Pretending that the USPS is a business rather than a basic public service is utterly daft. It makes as much sense as expecting the Pentagon to turn a profit. And the suggestion that the mail has been replaced by online communications is absurd when you remember who delivers all those books, shoes and packages of toilet paper.

The history of the Post Office not only has the heartwarming story of its founder to commend it. It is listed in the Constitution as a basic service to be provided by Congress. As is the census, which this administration is also brazenly attempting to ruin, for fear of actually having to count poor people, brown people and immigrants.

If the Constitution has any friends among Republicans in Congress -- you know, constitutional scholars like Sen. Mike Lee or historians like Rep. Chris Stewart -- yesterday would be a really good time to speak up and push for reform and restoration.

Ben Franklin would thank you for it.


Speaking of Rep. Chris Stewart, last week in this space I said the Utah congressman was alone in denying well-documented Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election to favor the current office-holder. His office informs me that Stewart does not dispute the interference, but does reject the conclusion that it was intended to help the president.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, promises to do a better job of shoveling snow off the mail carrier’s path to his door.


Twitter, @debatestate