Politicians must aim higher than personal glory
Editor's note: Robert Faber writes occasional columns for AnnArbor.com about aging, politics and other issues.
Now that we’ve grown older and can see things in the light of real life experiences, we seniors understand that the reality of politics is nothing like they taught us in school, so perhaps we should change some of the rules of the game.
And it is a game, so perhaps the list of candidates for the next election should include some of the giants in games, like LeBron James of basketball, or Peyton Manning of football, or Tiger Woods of golf. Those guys may know nothing about government or economics, but they look great, are comfortable with the press, are widely known and well liked, and have annual incomes in the millions -- all the attributes necessary for seeking a place in Washington. Their athletic skills may have no application in running the country, but that is an increasingly fringe requirement for election to high office.
And that is the essence of our growing national tragedy. Our choice for leadership has come to rely much more extensively on posturing on television and proclaiming wisdom with sound-bite cliches.
And that is not what our government is or who we are. At our country’s inception, the Constitution swore to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ..... promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty” -- a pledge unique in the history of nations. Unfortunately, that noble goal is ill served by aggressive political attacks designed solely to denigrate the opposition. Showmanship to win elections is a reasonable and acceptable part of the game, but when offered in lieu of productive discussion diminishes the higher principles of governance, ultimately damaging the value and integrity of the system.
Designated by the Constitution as the first branch of government, the Congress is known as "the world's greatest deliberative body," a description unfortunately at odds with its new reality. According to Norman Ornstein in "The Broken Branch," it has assumed the new label of "Tuesday-to-Thursday Club," its members “straggling in late on Tuesday then get[ting] out of town as early on Thursday as possible," leaving no time for the productive discussions that come from personal relationships with members of the opposition. Replacing those discussions are the vitriolic attacks taking place on the floor of Congress.
Whatever distance now separates us from the intent of our Constitution, its principles remain a treasured part of our heritage and the presumed definition of our values. And if that noble heritage is really a myth, it is our myth, venerated by our people and now an essential part of who we like to believe we are. The Constitution's homage to the "the welfare of the People" is disappearing from our political horizon, victim of the exigencies of "practical politics." Submission to the dictates of Party, determined by the demands of financial or ideological backers may win elections, but they profane our principles, leaving a leadership more beholden to its patrons than to its people.
The problem is clear -- the solution much less so. Ornstein attributes much of the fault to the collapse of Congressional responsibility, its loss of independence as the oversight branch of government. He sees "a legislative process that has lost the transparency, accountability, and deliberation that are at the core of the American system."
However accurate his diagnosis, there must be a higher standard of integrity for those to whom we entrust the mechanics and future of our nation. The sacred ideals and traditions by which our people and our nation are defined are colliding with the reality of power politics and political greed. Satisfying the needs of the many over the preferences of a privileged and powerful few has been our national ideal, but that condition cannot exist in today’s environment.
The promises written in our Constitution and the plea articulated on our Statue of Liberty to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” define our nation’s character and its goals. And even if we too often fall short, to our credit we have retained and honored the spirit of those aspirations. Clearly the needy and afflicted international communities cannot be our nation's primary obligation, but our loss as an inspiration for those oppressed populations is a troubling reflection of how we are faring at home with our own people and their dreams.
We seniors have spent the better part of a century pursuing the narrow agenda of improving life for ourselves and our progeny. It is time for our candidates to drop their “TV game show” electioneering and aim higher than the personal glories of the moment. The principles of the Constitution started our nation on its journey -- they should now be the goal and the measurement of our performance.
Bob Faber has been a resident of Ann Arbor since 1954. He and his wife, Eunice, owned a fabric store and later a travel agency. He served a couple of terms on the Ann Arbor City Council. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.