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Politics as the art of nearly impossible

The Iowa caucuses are over as we write but the interminable campaign waits to play itself out. In this most pampered society ever assembled, there is little sign of public joy or common purpose as we again choose our leaders. The population hovers between boredom and contempt.

And yet.

“I’ve tried to use the power of the office in a respectful fashion and understanding that I just hold it temporarily and try to use it to help individuals and groups of people.” So said Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., on “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer” Jan. 25. But then, Kerrey, after two terms, is leaving the Senate. It’s easy to talk.

Critics complain of cynicism and hypocrisy and greed. But the politicians no longer seem to mind. Worse, we the people take this lack of shame for granted. The result is a dissonance -- a lived lie. There is no necessary match between their words and what they think. So falsehood is the marshy arena of our common weal.

And yet. “The cheapest thing and most valuable thing simultaneously that a person could give is kindness,” said Kerrey. This is a senator speaking. What a great platform his words could be -- if only he were not retiring.

What keeps us going are occasional rays of light in the dimness. It is our hopeful nature to long for better times or conditions or people. If we’re such fertile ground for bad leaders we must surely be ripe for beauty, truth and goodness, and smart enough to recognize these when the pied piper comes calling.

“You have to be really careful not to become so egocentric that … you see the world through all your own problems and all your own dilemmas,” the senator said. It was a spellbinding interview, light shining for a moment on our better nature. Lehrer reminded him of the act of heroism that caused him to lose a leg in Vietnam. “I have plenty of fears,” Kerrey protested. “I did one thing, one heroic thing one night a long time ago. And there are plenty of times where I didn’t. I think it’s much more likely I’ll sustain heroic activity on behalf of other people, presuming that their lives and their health and security are more important than mine, if I pay attention to the heroic example of my mother and father and other people who have sustained it over a long period of time.”

This was a refreshing remove from the grubby caricature of the pol. He was asked what he thought of his fellow politicians. “My impression is that most people in and out of politics are just trying to do the best they can. But they’re not evil, mean people. … Sometimes they do a great job. Sometimes they do a lousy job. But they’re trying to do the best they can.”

Why don’t we elect only the wise and selfless to lead us to the promised land? Kerrey has an answer: “The people cannot have a Congress that’s any better than they are.” If we don’t like our government, he went on, perhaps our own lack of courage and generosity prohibits us from taking a stand and making a difference.

Tomorrow there will still be reason to be sad or cynical. And yet.

Is it possible to give even politicians the benefit of the doubt? Would they respond by becoming great and generous and majestic? They’d still be human, to be sure, but few, when placed on a pedestal do not want to make that pedestal their rightful place.

Kerrey goes on: “It’s up to the American people themselves to draw on their own goodness and then say, ‘This is what we want -- not for ourselves but for our friends and neighbors who may not have it as good as we do.’ ”

If this kind of politics were to catch on, it could be a whole new millennium.

National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2000