Former NYS Governor Mario Cuomo died last week. The headlines of the Rochester, NY newspaper eulogized him as “Not a typical politician”. Sadly, if politics was not already such a jaded word, one might actually wonder what the news story was all about. An eight year old child might ask his parents what the headlines meant. And a recollection from our tenth grade civics class might shed some light or make us feel better. Sure. But then the aspirations debated in Plato’s Republic might also have some current traction. Today, such a debate and such aspirations seem more likely to be mere fodder for fairytales.
In fact, you can go as far back into the antiquity of the written word as you want and not find a single quote praising the virtues of politics. Instead we find statements such as “I have come to the conclusion that politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians” (Charles De Gaulle) and “Sometimes I wonder if we shall ever grow up in our politics and say definite things which mean something, or whether we shall always go on using generalities to which everyone can subscribe, and which mean very little” (Eleanor Roosevelt). We’ve certainly got an extremely long history when it comes to the negative connotation of the word politics.
So what are we really looking for? And is what we are looking for reality or fantasy? The word that comes to mind is statesman. We sometimes hear people say, “Where are all the statesmen?” or “If we only had more statesmen, instead of greedy, corrupt politicians, things would be better.” In reality, however, is the only difference between a statesmen and a politician one’s personal perspective? Is a politician a person with whose politics you disagree and a statesman a person with whose politics you do agree? What truly then is a statesman and is it likely that we can expect to find more of them in the future?
Webster’s dictionary defines statesman as “a person who shows wisdom and skill in conducting state affairs…” Okay. Since the skill part of the definition can be sketchy and open to debate, let’s stick with the wisdom part. The same dictionary’s definition of wisdom is “the quality of being wise; the power of judging rightly and following the soundest course of action, based on knowledge, experience, and understanding.” Still not terribly helpful since a true statesman has to be bipartisan, collaborative, and familiar with Star Trek’s Mr. Spock (“the good of the many outweighs the good of the few or the one”); not very likely in current political circles – a wise Democrat usually implies a misguided Republican and vice versa.
It appears that we have been in this mess for millennia. So is there any way out? Revolutions and coups don’t seem to be the answer since history shows us that by such actions we always end up substituting one set of politicians for another. Lord Acton taught us that “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” so whoever ends up taking the reins usually betrays the populace just as badly as did their predecessor. And if ego and lust for power, connections, and self-aggrandizement are the hallmarks of people who go into politics, then wouldn’t we have to abolish such lust and ego if we are ever to find a true statesman. Seems like a mighty tall order!
“Politics: ‘Poli’ a Latin word meaning many and ‘tics’ meaning bloodsucking creatures” (Robin Williams).
How would you elevate the profession we call politics?