“Fastidious distaste for the roughness and meanness of political life may work in a seminar room, but it’s fatal on the campaign trail.” So writes Michael Ignatieff who teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School and had a brief career as the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. (“Letter to a Young Liberal,” by Michael Ignatieff, The New Republic, Nov/Dec 2014 pg. 33) His remarks are addressed to a young friend who is considering entering politics and who has asked for Ignatieff’s advice. I’d wish I been able to read the author’s reply 30 years ago when I made my first run for office. If I had, I might have become a less idealistic but more effective leader. Unfortunately, I thought I could keep above the mud wrestling and that was my mistake. I got pulled into the fray in spite of my “better nature.” Only later, after many heated battles, did I learn the attacks I suffered weren’t personal nor even genuine objections to my policies. They were launched because I stood in the way of some other politician’s plans or ambitions. As Ignatieff writes in his letter to the would-be politician, “It’s never personal: it’s just business.” (Ibid pg. 33)
And a dirty business it is, although one point can be made for it: the playing field is equal. No one who enters into battle is allowed standing based on money, pedigree or prestige. The Kennedys and the Rockefellers and the Roosevelts can testify to that. What matters is how well, how hard and how unscrupulous you are willing to be to play the game and still remember that somewhere in the future present advisories (not enemies) might become allies. In politics, there are no hard and fast allegiances, only alliances that change with the issue. Again, as Ignatieff warns, those without a stomach for “venality [and] double-crossing” (ibid pg. 33) should consider another career. Certainly, that was my decision.
Yet as I look back at the experience, I have to agree with the author that despite the muck, there is something ennobling about the struggle. First, to survive, you must truly believe in your cause and second, you have to be smart enough to control your message so that others can’t discredit it. Politics takes passion and a firm belief that many wrongs can add up to a right. To maintain this schism between means and ends requires a singular mindset, one that might cause alarm in mental health circles. Nonetheless, when personal ambitions is in sync with the general good, the results can be noble. It’s a magic which none but a politician can understand. The rest of us are better off not knowing how this brand of sausage is made.
I failed as a politician because I was unable to think only of the goal and keep myself blind to casualties along the way. Simply put, I wasn’t dedicated enough. I admit, my experience has left me sadder and wiser, but I didn’t leave politics as a cynic. I continue to participate by supporting candidates and causes. Only now I don’t make the mistake of imagining candidates are anything but human and incapable of deeds that shouldn’t see the light of day in South Bend, Indiana.
In truth, I am grateful to those who can stay the course and, for the most part, I believe many do so with an eye to making the world a better place. At its core, politics requires idealism which is why I agree with Ignateiff, that despite the mud, politics is “a noble life unto itself.” (Ibid 33) It’s just not the stuff of King Arthur.