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Do We Expect Too Much Of Our Politicians?

Janna Malamud Smith: Too many of us are spectators, not participants. That makes it harder for us to judge fairly. In this Jan. 12, 2016, photo, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign event at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
Janna Malamud Smith: Too many of us are spectators, not participants. That makes it harder for us to judge fairly. In this Jan. 12, 2016, photo, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign event at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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“How easy it is for those who play no part in public affairs to sneer at the compromises required of those who do.”

The sentence jumped out at me when I read it in a book review of a novel about Cicero the ancient Roman orator, politician and linguist. Cicero was talking about me, though I’m not sure I’d admit to sneering. Eye-rolling, maybe.

I have been trying to figure out how idealistic it’s fair to be, and how judgmental of our politicians. How compromising is too compromising? How corrupt, too corrupt? On the subject of corrupting milk with water, Thoreau once wryly noted, “some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” But short of something alive and wriggling, how do the rest of us know when politicians are just doing what they have to, and when they are giving up principles that could be defended?

When is it fair to ask that an elected representative try to lead opinion, and how much of the time must we accept that he or she has to compromise, to make some trades to stay in office?

This dilemma was brought home recently because two dear liberal friends — in separate contexts — threw up their hands at Hillary Clinton and said that she has too corrupt to be their candidate. They each expressed an intense antipathy that surprised me, and made me wonder about my own feelings, since I am more sympathetic to her than these friends are. (It’s her vote to invade Iraq I find hard to stomach.)

But I’m also puzzled. What is it fair to expect? And how do we as citizens reach a balanced appraisal of a candidate? I listen and read widely, but it’s not enough. The daily news stories are often too brief, or too biased, or too caught within the contagion of other coverage. Even when I come across good pieces, I find it really difficult to weigh the profile offered. I lack a sense of what makes for a fair standard. The environment in which our politicians must function is so toxic, how tainted is too tainted?

Or, conversely, in the case of Obama — my favorite president ever — while I believe he’d have been more effective if he’d come to office with more experience, and been more willing to go into the back room and mess up his hands making the sausage, would I still have admired him with that stuff all over his hands?

Even Bernie Sanders bowed to his state’s gun lobby, but isn’t that the very nature of representative government? I lived for some years in Vermont, and I understand the pressure, but it also crystallizes my question: When is it fair to ask that an elected representative try to lead opinion, and how much of the time must we accept that he or she has to compromise, to make some trades to stay in office?

A 1980s memoir I read by a man (John Bartlow Martin) who served as ambassador to the Dominican Republic, and who wrote speeches for Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy — among others — took me aback on this score. Though Martin had made his reputation as a progressive investigative journalist, the more he learned about politics, the more sympathetic he became with the messiness of politicians and of political process.

the more he learned about politics, the more sympathetic he became with the messiness of politicians and of political process.

Martin surprised me by observing that he felt that disassembling the party “machines” served our country poorly. And, he surprised me more by offering up Richard Daley and Chicago as a positive example of an effective machine that took care of constituents. I have always believed that Daley and Co. were poster children for a level of corruption we wanted to leave behind. The book didn’t entirely convince me otherwise, but it was thought provoking.

Certainly it made me realize that while billionaires’ influence is the No. 1 problem today, a second one is that too many of us are spectators, not participants. Sure, I go door to door and hold signs at polling places, but it doesn’t show me how the work happens. Not only is the complexity of the world increasing exponentially, but most of us no longer have enough of the hands-on experience with it that would help us to judge more fairly, or to do a better job of sorting wishful fantasy from achievable fact.

Janna Malamud Smith Cognoscenti contributor
Janna Malamud Smith is a psychotherapist and writer.

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