Commentary Magazine


On Public Service and Political Ambition

In his remarks at CPAC, former Senator and 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum said this

I want to win too. I think everybody here wants to win, but unlike a lot of these beltway talking heads, I’m not pontificating. I actually put my neck out there — and just about every other body part. 

Senator Santorum is a man of strong convictions and impressive achievements, including his role in welfare reform and his defense of unborn children. But I think his remarks on this matter are incomplete and to some degree unfair. 

First, on the matter of “beltway talking heads,” it needs to be said that not all talking heads are created equal. Some are worthless, and some are outstanding. And the ones who are good, really good, make a difference. They inject arguments and facts, policies and language into the public conversation that are valuable — more valuable, at times, than what many candidates and office holders offer up. I can also say from experience that the best writers, thinkers and policy experts are paid attention to in the White House, including at the highest levels. So I wouldn’t be too quick to denigrate “pontificating.” George Will has contributed more to our public life than Herman Cain. 

On the matter of those who run for public office and put their neck out: I agree; there’s something impressive about those who run for public office. It can be wearying and often you’re the target of fierce criticisms. It can be quite unpleasant. But there is also a tendency among those who run for office to present themselves as simply and only public servants, individuals willing to sacrifice their time and comfort in order to advance the good of the nation.

It’s certainly my experience that those who run for public office believe they have something important to contribute. But that’s not all there is. For people of a certain personality, the ones who are most often drawn to politics, campaigning and being elected to high public office can be an adrenaline rush and play to vanity. There are certainly worse and harder jobs in America than soaking up the applause of the crowd, to be surrounded by earnest young aides, to do non-stop television and radio interviews, to hold town hall meetings and meet with mostly supportive voters, and be on a debate stage speaking to a national audience. 

In Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, Michael Ignatieff, who was a leader of the Liberal Party in Canada, in talking about the truth of why people enter politics, wrote this refreshingly straightforward account:

The truth might be that you want to lead your country because the job comes with a plane, a house, a bureaucracy at your beck and call, and a security detail of men and women in suits with guns and earpieces. The truth may be that you long for power and enjoy the thrill of holding people’s futures in your hands. It might be that you are in search of posterity. You want to be famous, to be in the history books, to have schools named after you and your portrait hung in hallowed halls. It might be that you want to settle scores with your past. You want to revenge yourself on everyone who ever said you wouldn’t amount to anything. 

You wouldn’t want to say any of this. There are few rewards for candor in politics. What you say – always – is that you want to make a difference. You believe your experience qualifies you to serve. These circumlocutions are the etiquette of democracy, the ritual salute to the sovereignty of the people. The people themselves may suspect that the difference you want to make is to your own life, not to theirs. But they want to hear you say that you are in it for them.

The truth is that most politicians I have known – and by now I’ve known quite a few – are in it for themselves and for others. I don’t mean to point a finger only at politicians; what I say is true of me and of almost everyone I know. We’re driven, deeply and constantly driven, by self-interest, which is not necessarily bad. (See the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiment for more.) 

But in politics, there’s often a pretense. We tend to make it sound as if those of us who enter public life are unusually altruistic and self-giving; as if serving in the White House, campaigning and holding public office, being called “Senator” or “The Honorable” or (if you’re fortunate) “Mr. President,” is the equivalent of taking up your cross daily. It’s not.  And pace Ignatieff, I believe a bit more candor and authenticity about all this would go a long way in politics just now.

In any event, the desire for public service and personal ambition are intermixed in a complicated way. Our greatest president, Lincoln, was also a man of unsurpassed ambition. He couldn’t have achieved what he did without it. Yet he carried himself so very well.   

I’m not recommending politicians turn their campaigns into a confessional or an in-depth exploration of their interior lives. I am suggesting that a good many people would be pleased if, particularly in the hangover from the Obama years, politicians of every party and rank acknowledged what is true, and what we know to be true. The best of the best are in it for us. But they are also in it for them.  

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