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July 6th, 2005

The Goal of the Politician: Climbing the Slippery Slope and Keeping Off the Rest

by Henry Stern

The world of politics is the world of pretense. This is true for a number of reasons. One is that it attracts people with large egos and urgent desires for recognition and acceptance. Being physically attractive is helpful but not a requirement (Rule 32-P: Politics is Hollywood for ugly people). Intelligence is helpful, but shrewdness is a greater asset. Candidates twist themselves into knots to make a favorable impression. Which reminds me:

Long years ago, in my first term in Parks, I was downtown watching the line waiting to board the ferry to the Statue of Liberty. At that time, street performers did their thing on the broad promenade, paved with hex blocks, between New York Harbor and Battery Park. One actor was a contortionist, a smallish man, not young, who appeared to be from India or Bangladesh. He was double-jointed, of course, and he twisted his arms and legs into what seemed impossible positions. The climax of his act was sealing himself in a transparent plastic cube that could not have been more than two feet in each dimension, and looked as if it were somewhat smaller. I never saw the box-man again, but he made a lifelong impression, and the analogy I draw is how people can transform themselves if it is good for business.

Another reason politicians sometimes disappoint is that the sine qua non of elective politics is getting elected. It is much easier to effect change from within than from without. Having done both over the years, I know. Doing it yourself is better than explaining it to people, a lot of whom think that being elected or appointed to something makes them better than you or any other member of the public.

Fortunately, starting with a loss does not necessarily put an end to a career in politics, particularly for the persistent. Ed Koch lost his first race, in 1962, for the Democratic nomination for the State Assembly from Greenwich Village. Mario Cuomo was defeated, in 1974, for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. Rudy Giuliani lost, in 1989, when he ran for mayor. Bill Clinton was defeated for Congress in Arkansas, and Bush 43 lost for Congress in the heart of Texas, while his father, Bush 41, was defeated for a Senate seat from the entire state. Going back a century and a half, who was elected to the Senate from Illinois in 1858? Stephen A. Douglas, “the Little Giant,” coming off a statewide series of debates with a former one-term congressman known for splitting rails and representing railroads.

Thoughtful people will realize that there is often a dichotomy between what a public official believes is right and what his/her constituents want him/her to do. If you disappoint them too often, the voters, possibly assisted by lobbyists or political machines, will find someone else who will actually represent them. If you do everything they want, you are likely to disappoint those who think like you and believe in you, and you will trash whatever is left of your conscience. Many elected officials tread warily and thoughtfully between the poles of independence and submission. Some politicians, however, are untroubled by doubt, possibly because they have no conception as to what is right, or because their votes are really not their own, but dictated by party leaders, lobbyists, major contributors, editors and publishers, the chattering classes, well-stuffed envelopes, or special friends.

Reflecting on the structure of our government, and considering the frailty of human nature, it is remarkable that things come out as well as they do, most of the time. Of course, the system is inadequate to meet the people’s needs, particularly the problems of the less fortunate or the less gifted, although we do well compared with most other places. But our institutions works better when there is constant pressure from outsiders for honesty, efficiency, transparency and justice. The natural tendency of human institutions and their hierarchies, whether business, labor, political, military, religious, academic, you name it, is to become self-serving. There is almost always some need for reform, restructuring, even some redistribution when one part grows too fat.

Although some reformers, and many incumbents, may be righteous hypocrites, limousine liberals, petty scolds or naive do-gooders, it is important for leaders to arise who will challenge power in a society which swings too far in the direction of the self interest of the powerful and the privileged, a group that extends far beyond the wealthy. www.nycivic.org

Filed Under: Articles | New York | Politics

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