On May 28, 1991, I found myself standing on the grounds of the Kremlin in Moscow. Gathering outside the building at the same time were many newly selected members of the Russian legislative body.
The members’ task was to elect the new president of the Russian Federation. At the time, the Soviet Union was still in existence and Russia itself was one of the 15 provinces that made up the entire country.
But an election by popular vote was not something that had been done before within the communist system. When they discovered an American congressman was in their mist, I was quickly surrounded. I still remember the question of one member. She asked, “Congressman, the people I represent don’t agree. What should I do?”
I told her, “Find out what they agree on, and then do it.”
I was trying to tell her to become a good politician. This is because a good politician should be able to hear from the public diverse messages, discord, dissension and consensus and then, with his or her colleagues, form a course of action that needs to be taken and addresses the problem.
I don’t apologize when I say I admire good politicians. I like good politicians, irrespective of whether they are conservative or liberal. If the politician can look to the ideology that forms the basis of that individual’s perception and understand the differences from their own, then needed steps can be taken and unwise undertakings avoided.
Here is one example. In 1953 Dwight David Eisenhower, a Republican, the first since 1933, took over the presidency. Eisenhower believed the country desperately needed a modern system of roads. But the new president could hardly commence his term by calling for a tax increase to pay for it. Mainline Republicans would have been appalled. It was a Democrat, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, who found the solution. His suggestion was to create a trust fund to raise the money necessary to build the highways.
Eisenhower had his roads and the Democrats had their infrastructure project, which created jobs, and none of us want to think what this country would be like today without our interstate transportation system. This was an action taken by consensus.
There is another model of political leadership that some choose to take. It is called dissension. These political leaders attempt to maintain power by stressing to some why the opposition is a threat to their individual well-being and the nation’s.
Here is what I mean. I was disappointed when our president, reacting to the attack by an immigrant in a rented truck who ran down people on bikes in New York City two weeks ago, chose to use the incident to gain political points. The president immediately blamed the attack on Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and his support for an immigration program that had let the individual into the U.S.
Setting aside the fact the legislation that created the program was signed into law by President George W. Bush, was supported by 14 Republican senators when it passed and Schumer, at the time, was a member of the House, what is most troubling is the type of political leadership the president chose to exercise. Instead of calling on both parties to form a review and then revise the policy, he decided to cast blame for a regrettable and tragic incident on a political opponent.
It is unfortunate we now live in an era where the politics of dissension divides the voting public into an us-against-them mentality. This has become the norm. It is generated in part by the belief that winning an election is more important than the functions of government determined by those who won.
But a good politician understands once the election has been conducted, the talent of the individual office holder is measured by how well the tools and levers of government are used.
What this country needs right now are more good politicians.