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A few kind words for politicians

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POSTED: November 8, 2007 5:00 a.m.
 It feels like an almost weekly occurrence now. Something happens on Capitol Hill — the debate over our way out of Iraq, for instance — and before you know it, commentators are wrinkling their noses about politicians.
 I’ve spent the better part of my life among politicians, and I know their shortcomings. Some of them engage in so much spin they lose sight of the truth; many stretch the bounds of what it takes to win an election, or they cater, if not pander, to influential or well-heeled interest groups; pretty much all of them spend a lot of time in a demeaning chase after campaign funds.
There have also been plenty of examples of politicians who let the country and their constituents down, going to jail for corruption or resigning because of misbehavior you wouldn’t want your children reading about. I grant the critics all of that.
 Yet here’s what I remember as well: My very first year in Congress, I voted in favor of creating Medicare. That program was crafted by politicians, and in the decades since then it has helped countless older Americans get much-needed health care. Was that an ignoble thing?
 Should the GI Bill, the creation of the land-grant college system, the interstate highway system or other landmarks of congressional action ignite our disdain because they were shaped by politicians?
Should we be excoriating those pols on Capitol Hill for voting every year to back research into disease, or for funding the national parks, or for looking over the executive branch’s shoulder to be sure it acts in a way that does justice to Americans’ expectations?
 My point is not that politics is filled with selfless, honorable individuals heading for sainthood. Like any profession, it has its good practitioners and its bad. But it is time to temper public scorn for politicians with a little reality.
 The simple truth is, some of our greatest national heroes were politicians — think of the example George Washington set as our first president, or of Abraham Lincoln. This nation would have long since come apart at the seams without the skills of political leaders.
Today, in a country so filled with diversity and the clamor of loud and insistent voices, without the ability of politicians at every level to listen to all those voices, find areas of common interest, look for creative solutions, forge compromise and convince their constituents to move forward, our daily lives would be far more chaotic and we could even confront anarchy.
 The few who misbehave draw headlines and attention, but my experience is that most politicians are well-intentioned, hard-working people who are trying to do what they perceive to be in the best interests of their communities and the nation.
They can be an ambitious, hard-driving, energetic breed, but my view is that it is possible to live greatly, even nobly, in politics — and many politicians do.
 They do it in small, everyday ways, by helping people resolve problems that might mean little to others — a lost Social Security check, a missing relative overseas, a dangerous intersection nearby — or by guiding them through bureaucratic systems they need help negotiating.
They do it in bigger ways, by trying to educate their constituents about the issues that confront us and crafting legislation to deal with them.
 And they do it in perhaps the most important way imaginable, by trying to create and maintain a political and social environment that is secure, safe, free and stable, one in which all of us can pursue our own interests.
 “I must study politics and war,” John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, “that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, (and) give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music.”  
At their best, that is what politicians do. They sustain the framework in which Americans go about their lives and do their best to improve it, so that our children and grandchildren can thrive.
 Sure, go ahead and heap scorn on politicians, and say they pursue a less-than-noble profession. But from time to time, let’s also remember to thank the many who carry on their difficult work with skill, integrity, and deep concern for the common good.
 
Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana  University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.
 

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