Like many of my high school classmates in the 1960’s, I once believed that politicians were, for the most part, selfless servants of the people. Setting aside the enormous salaries they could earn in the private sector, they sacrificed the good life in order make this world a better place. And they were also people of high moral character. Seeing the photos of John Kennedy with his wife and children, how could anyone doubt his love and fidelity? And as for his faith, why, didn’t JFK say that “Here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”?
Well, of course, time has wiped away the naivete, so much, in fact, that I find it nearly impossible to trust any politician, regardless of party affiliation. Over the years, I have been promised that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid would be reigned in and solvent; that the debt would be eliminated; that budgets would be balanced; that wasteful spending would end; that taxes would be lowered; that wars would be fought only when absolutely necessary; that our borders would be secure; that the Department of Education would be eliminated; that the bloated bureaucracy would be cut to the bone; that corruption would not be tolerated; that . . . that . . . well, you get the picture. With the exception of an occasional tax cut (which is usually diluted by other “hidden” taxes), promises go unfulfilled. At the same time, many politicians are caught in various scandals running the gamut from marital infidelity to financial kickbacks. And how many of these same people enter politics with a modest income and retire years later as multi-millionaires? In all fairness, I must believe that there are some politicians who are truly the servants of the people who elected them. But don’t ask me to make a list. And even if I did, I’m afraid that it would be depressing to see how short the list is.
All of this brings me to Pope Benedict XVI and his short book Images of Hope: Meditations on Major Feasts. The chapter on St. Wolfgang of Regensburg focuses on the saint’s credibility as a man of God. But before Benedict chronicles the proofs of Wolfgang’s holiness, he reflects on what one should look for in a “credible” politician. The following excerpt is most instructive:
What, actually, should the credible politician, like the credible shepherd, look like? In a similar crisis of trust, Plato said that the blindness of average politics is due to the fact that their representatives fight for power “as if it were a great good.” The real statesman must be a man who has seen through this striving for semblance and appearance. He must be a person who understands politics to be service and accepts it as a burden, as a renunciation of the greater, which he has tasted: the beauty of knowing, being free for truth . . .Whoever would seek [public office] as an increase in power and prestige has fundamentally misunderstood it. Whoever wants above all to become something himself with such offices will always be the slave of public opinion. He must flatter in order to maintain his importance. He must accommodate. He must agree with people. He has to accommodate himself to the changing currents and thus he becomes devoid of truth, for he must condemn tomorrow what he praised today. Then he no longer really loves people at all, but in the end loves only himself, although at the same time he loses even himself to the opinion that happens to be the stronger.
So, there it is. That’s the problem. Far too many (most?) politicians run for office for the power it gives. There is no sense of service to the public, no sense of carrying a burden. If holding office were truly a burden, politicians would yearn to return to private life. Instead, they spend each day doing what is necessary (lie, cheat, steal, connive, deceive, etc.) to get re-elected. Members of Congress serve thirty, forty, or fifty years, and we are to believe that they bear this “cross” for the sake of the people? Please. I won’t drink that Kool-Aid.
If the Tea Party has proved anything this year, it’s that many people are fed up with politicians who say one thing and do another. The message is clear: Lie to us and you’re gone. Now that’s something I can believe in.