Wherever I speak, I’m usually asked some variation on this question:
What are we to do about politics in this country? Nothing is getting done, and it seems only the rich and powerful have a voice anymore.
My usual answer is some version of a call to reduce the influence of money on Washington. But I can tell my audience isn’t satisfied with that answer — and neither am I. So I’ve been giving this a great deal of thought. Perhaps a better answer is that we, as individual voters, should focus on the fundamental qualities we want to see in our elected leaders and judges more than emphasizing academic background and political experience.
It is true that the influence of money seems to have taken over every political decision in our country, and that more and more the divide between the House of Have and the House of Have-Not is rapidly expanding. Yet I’m not sure the near-impossible task of getting money out of politics would actually accomplish very much. Money has influenced our politics since the days of the Founding Fathers. And as Jack says in my fictional political thriller, When Men Betray, “Money is like water, it always finds a way.” (Apologies for the plug.)
My wife thinks my ideas are naïve and totally off the mark, if not just plain crazy. But I offer them for your consideration. How should we judge judges and politicians?
Candidates for Political Office
Most historians agree that Abraham Lincoln was one of our greatest Presidents. If Lincoln were a candidate for President today, however, he wouldn’t stand a chance of being elected. He had little experience in political office, was a backwoods lawyer who didn’t go to a fancy school, had no foreign policy experience, and was never a governor or high-ranking official.
In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, she notes that Lincoln was famous for his dry sense of humor, homespun wit and common sense, and a genius at forming friendships with those individuals opposing him. He assumed responsibility for subordinates’ mistakes; he shared credit for his successes. Most important, he learned from his own mistakes and wasn’t afraid to make them.
Lincoln was an ambitious politician. But once elected, he did his job with a selflessness almost unimaginable in today’s environment. Lincoln’s greatness came not from political savvy, an expensive education or worldly experience. It came from his qualities: decency, morality, kindness, sensitivity, compassion, honesty, devotion and empathy.
Certainly it’s important to seek out candidates who share our concerns and viewpoints. But we need to seek out more from them before we give them our vote. We have to learn how to go behind campaign rhetoric to find candidates who embody those personal qualities we value. For me, I should be discovering whether the candidate is a decent, honest, compassionate person. Others may care less for honesty or personal matters but want a candidate able to use their political skills to tackle the issues they deem important. Each of us will have different criteria, but at least we would be talking about qualifications that are specific and important to each voter, not qualifications that the mainstream tells us is necessary.
It’s not easy these days to get behind the mask worn by people running for public office, especially as billions of dollars force them to be Stepford Wives for the electorate. Don’t laugh, but the American press is supposed to be impartial and independent. Can’t they help?
Candidates For Judicial Elections and Appointments
Nominees to the Supreme Court go through a rigorous process examining every aspect of their personal and professional lives. Prior judicial experience and academic credentials are apparently most important. Did they attend an Ivy League law school? Did they ever do or say anything wrong? Did they ever make a mistake in their life? Have they taken a position on any social issue? The wrong answers to those questions — especially the last one — are instantaneous disqualifiers. Candidates for judicial elections and appointments go through a similar, if less vigorous, process. But rarely does any of this include information on the candidate’s personal character. You’ll find no adjectives listed on their resume for such qualities as compassion, honesty, decency or generosity.
In my opinion, judicial experience is highly overrated. John Marshall is revered as a great Chief Justice, but he never served a single day in judicial robes prior to joining the Court. Another Chief Justice, Earl Warren, was a three-time California governor and also had no prior judicial experience prior to joining the Court. Neither did Felix Frankfurter. Neither did Louis Brandeis. An Ivy League education is no predictor of great jurisprudence. Lewis Powell attended Washington and Lee; Thurgood Marshall attended Howard University; Hugo Black attended the University of Alabama. All good schools, but not good enough for those who believe members of the Court should go to Yale or Harvard.
We need to search for and appoint justices and judges who have experienced life just like the human beings on whom they will pass judgment, not someone who has lived in an ivory tower most of their life. We should look for individuals who aren’t so mired in the intricacies of the law that it thwarts compassion and mercy. We need people who see the law not as an end unto itself, but a means to establish and reinforce justice — and to fight injustice, too.
Nowhere are academic credentials, prior experience, and political and financial clout more important than in appointed positions in government and to critical advisory groups. Nowhere is the process in need of more change than in the mindset of those who make such appointments.
We may not be able to eliminate the influence of money on elections, but its influence need not dominate all political appointments. If the very people who control the regulation of food and drug companies come directly from employment at those very companies being regulated, then the fox is in the hen house. If the tax code is written by lawyers who will benefit from its complexity, then the code will be incomprehensible to all but those who derive an advantage by its draftsmanship. If truly traditional government functions, such as incarceration, are turned over to profit-making companies, then human suffering will be merely a “profit center.” As we know, in many parts of America, it already is.
I could go on and on about the potential for abuse when we appoint individuals to government positions only because of their experience working an industry affected by that position. When someone seeks your vote, question them as to what specific, detailed criteria they will use to make their appointments. If the answer is evasive, vague, all about “the best qualified” person or focused only on “experience” or academic credentials, run for cover.
Nowhere more than in government can one bad apple spoil the barrel. The vast majority of people who are public servants are just that – trying to do what is right and good. But we have allowed people who hope to use government employment to their advantage to use “experience and academic credentials” as a litmus test to disguise their lack of character qualities critical to the faithful execution of their responsibilities. That must come to an end.