In the history of our country, every single president we've elected has previously served in our government, and nearly all of them in elective office. And while this year we've seen an incredibly frustrated electorate catapult one very unlikely "outsider" - who's never served - to the top of a major party's presidential ticket, lately I've felt compelled to actually defend the American politician.
In his convention speech on Wednesday night, it was so gratifying to hear the President do the same. Yes, Barack Obama was forcefully making a case for why he believes voters should back his candidate and extend his party's platform and hold of power in the White House for four more years. But in his promotion of Hillary Clinton, we also heard a defense of just how difficult it is to represent the American people. Just how hard it is to be in the public eye and be held under scrutiny for the decisions you're making on behalf of the people you represent. And President Obama chose to partially quote one of our greatest presidents in driving the point home:
"Look, Hillary's got her share of critics. She's been caricatured by the right and by some folks on the left; accused of everything you can imagine - and some things you can't. But she knows that's what happens when you're under a microscope for 40 years. She knows she's made mistakes, just like I have; just like we all do. That's what happens when we try. That's what happens when you're the kind of citizen Teddy Roosevelt once described - not the timid souls who criticize from the sidelines, but someone 'who is actually in the arena...who strives valiantly; who errs...[but] who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement.'"
I've always loved that T.R. quote. And during the years when I was managing campaigns for federal office, whether my candidate was an incumbent or a challenger, I always maintained a great degree of respect for those politicians who took that big step of running for office, knowing all of the slings and arrows that would invariably be descending on them like heat-seeking missiles. Our elected representatives don't always get so much recognition for the good calls they make. But the mistakes? Those missteps can hound a politician for decades.
Donald Trump has consistently thrown pejoratives at all of our leaders in this campaign - regardless of party. They're "stupid" or "losers" or "disasters." Of course, it's a far longer list. He never acknowledges his own mistakes, even describing his bankrupt businesses as examples of his smart use of bankruptcy laws. Again, there's a longer list. He's never served a day in the military or a day in office, and doesn't seem to respect those who have. His attack on America's elected representatives may just be a cynical tactic to garner votes, but it feeds into a larger narrative that far too often holds in contempt the very citizens whom we choose to elect.
It's not that I don't fully understand just how exasperated Americans are with the performance of our government. To the contrary, I write and teach and speak on a daily basis about the congressional failure we see in our country. But my objection is more with the system than the individual. Sure, I favor specific candidates in individual races and I get disappointed from time to time with the decisions and public behavior of some of the folks we put in office. But by and large, and perhaps inspired by the difficult and non-glamorous work I've seen my candidates do when they're operating under pressure, inside the belly of the beast, I still admire the work of politicians.
And when it comes to the big chair, nearly all U.S. presidents have political scandals, or at the very least, high profile mistakes that cost them, and sometimes hurt us. Running the free world is kind of a hard job. And in today's media age? The word "microscope" doesn't do it justice.
So as we watch an epic general election campaign that's being portrayed as the "insider" versus the "outsider," I hope voters will keep in mind that serving the public in office actually is a public service. "Politician" is not a dirty word. Our elected leaders are human beings, just like us - only their decisions are on display for all to see. Their mistakes get magnified, while the reaction to the positive things they accomplish is often: "whadya done for me lately?" That's the hard slog of governing. It's not easy and change doesn't happen quickly in our American system. But it's a noble pursuit and worthy of our respect. In what was likely one of his very last national speeches, the President spelled some of that out in Philadelphia. For an old campaign hack like me, it was wonderful to see.