During last year’s election, a candidate for a South Valley city
council seat told me proudly that he’s not a
I asked him,
Then why the hell do you want to get into politics? By
definition, a politician is someone involved in politics.
I think his remark reflects a crisis in American society
During last year’s election, a candidate for a South Valley city council seat told me proudly that he’s not a “politician.” I asked him, “Then why the hell do you want to get into politics? By definition, a politician is someone involved in politics.” I think his remark reflects a crisis in American society today. We Americans feel a sense of cynicism toward people who want to serve in political positions. Some of this cynicism is warranted as a few politicians do abuse their power of office. But politics can also unify us as a people to achieve great goals.
The death of Sargent Shriver at age 95 this month put into perspective for me that America has been blessed with leaders who use the political process to inspire us and uplift us as a nation. Shriver stood as one of those people. He truly was one of America’s great men.
The horror of sea battle he saw in the Pacific during World War II no doubt framed forever his beliefs of how people should compassionately treat each other. It shaped his political vision, guiding him two decades later to become the founding director of the Peace Corps. He also established Head Start, and was a creator of the Job Corps and Legal Services for the Poor. He worked to develop Volunteers in Service to America, a domestic version of the Peace Corps. And in later years, he served as the president and chairman of the Special Olympics founded by his wife Eunice Shriver.
Looking at the last 50 years of America’s story, I see the bright, shining examples of political leadership that made a difference in making our nation a warmer, richer and more humane nation. Among them was Shriver’s brother-in-law, John F. Kennedy, a man of charismatic vision who provided our nation with the courage of hope and optimism.
In his inaugural speech, he asked Americans to look beyond their own selfish human natures and instead seek to provide benefit to all by asking ourselves what we can do for our country. Kennedy provided our nation with a unifying vision of journeying across the gulf of space to explore our sister world, the moon. Project Apollo brought a spirit of adventure to America, something we badly needed during the ’60s and early ’70s when America was racked by the chaos of social upheaval rooted in the Vietnam War. Kennedy’s thousand days of Camelot gave us, for one brief, shining moment, a sense of confidence in a more enlightened future.
Not only liberal politicians but also conservative leaders have provided Americans with a sense of trust in tomorrow. President Richard Nixon’s irrational fears led to the national nightmare of Watergate. But Nixon was also a visionary as a politician, something Americans tend to forget because of that scandal. He made his historic visit in February 1972 to the People’s Republic of China, considered America’s enemy at that time, and that trip started the process of normalizing U.S. relations with that communist country. Setting aside his cold warrior ideology, in May 1972 he journeyed to the Soviet Union and in Moscow met with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Together they laid the foundation for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), which paved the way for future nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements between the superpowers.
Paradoxically for someone who had a severe disconnect with nature, Nixon also can be acclaimed as our greatest environmental president. During his five and a half years in office, he signed the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and created the Environmental Protection Agency, among other “tree-hugger” accomplishments.
Like Nixon, Ronald Reagan can be seen as a visionary president from the view of history. He understood that politics is the profession of making great goals happen. Driven by his fear of the prospect of global nuclear war, Reagan developed a conciliatory relationship with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. At the historic Reykjavik, Iceland, meeting in 1987, the two partnered in an attempt to totally abolish nuclear weapons – a goal which infuriated the hard-right conservatives in both nations. Reagan’s greatest legacy as a politician was his signing of the START I arms control treaty with the Kremlin, slashing the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles. A pragmatic leader, Reagan willingly abandoned his ideology when it interfered with achieving a greater benefit for humanity.
Some argue that optimism and inspiration in political leadership are “unrealistic” in today’s cut-throat arena of government. I see it as no shame for a politician to be unrealistic. We need unrealistic politicians in today’s America, people like Sarge Shriver who refuse to tolerate any reality where injustice, tyranny, war and poverty exist.