PoliticianPolitical journalists, especially, tend to describe all elected officials as “politicians.”  That is not necessarily incorrect.  They operate in the political sphere, engage in political discourse, and attempt to achieve, or block, certain political objectives.  But the word also is an opprobrium, connoting a scheming, self-interested, possibly corrupt, somewhat untrustworthy scoundrel.  A politician is always up to something he or she doesn’t want us to know about.

Occasionally, an elected official acts against self-interest, that is to say takes a position or casts a vote that is not popular and that jeopardizes re-election.  That man or woman doesn’t fit the politician stereotype.  Such behavior is rare enough and surprising enough that we describe it as a “profile in courage” or even, as with the sudden death of the Russian minister on the eve of the Council of Vienna (I think), cause us, as this did Metternich, to say, What could have been his motive.

By an act against self-interest, or by voluntary retirement from office—not defeat, or by simply taking the long-term national interest into account, an elected official may suddenly become a public servant.  That seems to be the key: what is in the nation’s interest, not what is in the interest of my political career.  There are public servants at all levels of our politics.  They sometimes seem rare enough to be almost extinct.  But we look for them at election time and we often vote for a new face in the hope that individual will turn out to be a public servant not a careerist politician.

Rarer still are statesmen (and I use this term for both genders).  They are public servants with two additional qualities: an international view and a long view.  Circumstances now require many if not most members of Congress to know at least something about the world in which we live.  Though an amazing number do not hold passports or desire to see that world.  Mostly missing is the long view, the sense of history that enables the states-person to put an immediate crisis or challenge into context, to apply the lessons of history to the current problem.  We all know Santayana’s famous dictum: those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.  And no one since has been able to improve on that judgment.

The qualities of statesmanship, judgment, wisdom, and the long view, are so rare as to seem almost non-existent these days.  Statesmen there are, but they seem not to want to penetrate the political thicket necessary to serve.  We better start finding some and clearing some of that thicket soon.

13 Responses to “Politicians, Public Servants, and Statesmen.”

  1. Gary Hart: Politicians, Public Servants, and Statesmen | News from: The Huffington Post - Breaking News and Opinion Says:

    […] Posted from Senator Hart’s new blog at Matters of Principle. […]

  2. Tom Gee Says:

    Listening to and reading the use of the terms “politician” and “political” by pundits and people in general, one gets the impression it’s a dastardly profession. We remember otherwise, don’t we? What do you think caused this change? I’m not sure I know, but I remember as far back as Watergate how White House aide Gordon Strachan responded during the hearings to a question about what advice he would give to other young people about serving in government. He said something to the effect of, “I’d tell them not to go.” Then, in Reagan, we had a president who openly and repeatedly demeaned government in every way he could.

  3. Brian C. McCarthy Says:

    For all the contempt that is piled upon typical politicians who let the latest polls dictate their every move, it seems that even more scorn attaches to those who defy public opinion. Elected officials who follow their own consciences and do what is not popular with their constituents are derided as being “out of touch” with the people back home. It is virtually unheard of for a public official to do anything, whether popular or not, that does not generate chatter about what ulterior motive was behind it. The whole political atmosphere is so poisoned with cynicism; it is refreshing to hear a rare call to statesmanship.

  4. Gary Hart Says:

    Tom, you have the key reason right: It was only 20 short years, but a political lifetime, between “ask what you can do for your country” and “the government is the problem.” Government and public service have been demeaned for most of 50 years. Plus there are journalistic rewards for “scrutiny”, a must abused word.
    Some years from now, in response to Brian McCarthy, a political leader will write another profiles in courage about elected officials who saw farther ahead of their constituents and acted in the national interest. Idealism is a torch and it does from time to time outshine cynicism.

  5. Michael Says:

    I put my life on hold for nearly two years for a 47 year-old presidential candidate who ignited the very same sense of idealism we’re talking about here. I felt tremendous pride and excitement when I was selected as his only delegate to the Democratic National Convention from NY-13. Unfortunately, we wound up now with someone in the Whitehouse that seems in over his head and, as a result, feels comfortable perpetuating the status quo when he had the opportunity to become another FDR. Still, it’s intriguing to wonder what might have been had that other young candidate wrestled the nomination from the establishment that year, so long ago.

  6. Kevin W. Says:

    Incremental change in the right direction is better than unimpeded change in the wrong direction. Keep the faith, Michael!

  7. Michael Says:

    Incremental change in the right direction, Kevin? Monied interests have this country by the throat. Despite having brought the world financial system to the brink of collapse, nothing had changed for them. Only because he’s in a tough reelection fight has Chris Dodd drawn up what looks like sensible regulatory reform, but given what we’ve seen with health care, what are the chances it’s going to pass? I’ll give you a hint: ZERO. Members of congress are bought and paid for by the financial industry and the tone-deaf White House isn’t pushing for meaningful reform. The only reforms we ever get are along the lines of the bankruptcy “reform” we got a few years ago – legislation that’s creating a generation of indentured servants to the banks. Special interests are sucking this county dry and politicians in both parties can’t seem to do enough to help them out. One can pine for idealism and statesmanship all they want, but this is the reality of the country today.

  8. Kevin W. Says:

    I think I understand your frustration; I feel much of it myself. To say that the culture of D.C. changes at a glacial pace might still be exceedingly generous. However, I’ve learned that true leadership is not always exhibited only by achieving optimal results in one fell swoop, but rather in nurturing and sustaining an environment where courageous, creative conversations about possible change can take place. Example: President Obama gave a speech in Prague about the possibility of a world free of nuclear weapons. Could this really happen? People are now talking.

    This is the only way that I’ve found to achieve sustainable, meaningful improvements in organizations, and by my observation, in nations. You may regard my sentiments as pollyanna, but I remain optimistic about our future.

  9. Tom Gee Says:

    I side with Kevin here. I proudly cast my vote last November for a new president to serve a four-year term. Barring “high crimes and/or misdemeanors…,” I will wait until 2012 to decide for whom I will vote next.

  10. Gary Hart Says:

    Both Michael and Kevin raise the question of whether America moves in cycles or in a line of very gradual progress. Arthur Schlesinger promoted the idea of 30 or 40 year cycles of reform followed by equal length cycles of conservatism. Most of us would like to believe America inevitably progresses, however slowly. But that periodic tendency to revert to the past and sometimes to try to reverse gains (such as the persistent desire by conservatives to privatize or even abolish Social Security) calls that belief into question. I’m still trying to figure this out.

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