Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

The mind of the American politician – Part One

One night, when I was still working at the Gainesville Sun, the copy editor next to me uttered the lament of everyone who is politically aware in this world: “Why can’t politicians just be honest and stop posing?”

He and I saw the world from the conservative and liberal perspectives, respectively, but we could unite on one topic, if at all: Being a politician isn’t so much about having deeply held beliefs but in making people think you have deeply held beliefs, while looking for the next angle to play or the next beliefs to pretend to adopt.

I’m long past being disillusioned with elected officials, and have given up the expectation that there will be any change for the good from a change in administrations at any level. Every political candidate promises some variation of “change” but delivers “more of the same,” then tries to tell you that they’re delivering “change.” When it comes to the economy, especially, it’s more like “small change.”

As I’ll elaborate on later, politicians cannot help but run on economic promises, even though their work in office has almost no impact on the economy. It’s a mindset that says good things will happen once they have the most votes and are in office, while terrible things will happen if the opponent gets elected.

Small wonder that so many Americans decline to participate in politics at all. When everyone who runs for office seems to be “going negative” and failing to provide any real solutions or ideas beyond clichés and quotes from other politicians, is it any wonder that people decide that politics doesn’t have any relevance in their lives?

The danger is that, in fact, politicians at every level want people to be disengaged from the process and the system, unless they want votes or support for a pet issue. It makes things a lot easier when the public isn’t involved in the decision process, though elected officials pay lip service by lamenting that “the public is apathetic.”

No, Mr. or Ms. Politico, the public is not apathetic; the public is tired of being screwed over. And some of us are onto your games.

Marines and leadership
Many politicians make much of their military service, but few will talk about leadership beyond the usual clichés or maxims from Sun Tzu or Malcolm Gladwell. In fact, one of the most important lessons I ever learned about leadership came from the Marine Corps’ NCO manual.

Most politicians will tell you that they were the greatest soldiers or sailors ever, but I won’t lie. I was a middling Marine, maybe below average. I didn’t apply myself as much as I should have – I was in my late teens back then, and kind of unfocused.

Still, I took some lessons to heart, and one of them was expressed in the NCO manual. I had managed by the skin of my teeth to make E-4, corporal, and read the book for insights. One sentence stood out:

Leaders should fix the problem, and not the blame.

Imagine if a candidate for public office said during the campaign that he was a fixer of problems and it didn’t matter who came before and what they did. And that when he was in office, he was going to focus on fixing problems, too. As for the blame, he’d just leave that out of the process because it wasn’t important.

I am willing to bet that people would flock to that candidate, and see him as a person with real wisdom and ideas. The trouble is that the temptation is always there to lob a grenade at your opponents and predecessors. The politics of blame is easier and more fun rhetorically than the politics of solutions and answers.

Ultimately, this is why people become frustrated with politics: Because elected officials go off the “fixing” route and prefer to take the blame route because it’s easier and you can score more political and rhetorical points.

For political candidates, posturing is everything. Thus, the candidate has to be everything to everyone. To the conservative, he or she has to be the harsh, bottom-line businessman; to the liberal, the soft-hearted and compassionate nurturer. Small wonder that many politicians come across as false.

Here’s an example, and also why business people should stay out of elected office.

The Jobs program
When Steve Jobs died, the obituaries gushed about the man who was a visionary. While others did the grunt work, including the little Chinese girls poisoned to make the iPhone and iPad, he sat home and counted his millions of bucks, and relished being rich in a country like the U.S., where so many people get screwed out of a living and a career. He had all the toys, and lots of money. That’s a fact, not a value judgment.

I will give Jobs this: He may have had many personal defects, and was a bit of a narcissist, but he never went all the way with his narcissism. He never decided to run for public office because his money made him the solution to our problems. No, he stuck to his business career and did what he did best.

Still and all, back in the 1970s, it could be hard to imagine that Jobs and Steve Wozniak’s company, Apple, would even get started. Two guys who were like hippies starting a capitalist company? Wozniak said they had thought that they might make a few bucks, then maybe go bust, but at least they could say that they had a company at some time.

Today, Jobs and Wozniak would have probably started a nonprofit devoted to AIDS or wounded troops or autistic kids, and made their fortune that way, but back then, you started a business and worked at it.

As Wozniak noted, Apple had the hottest product on the market and was selling them like mad, and at a major profit. It would hard to blame either man for thinking that such brilliance – which was more attributable to the confluence of developments in solid-state electronics and software, among many others – made them destined to be political leaders.

They never reached that conclusion. Political power was, to them, not the goal. Producing computers, improving them and developing new products was their lodestar.

Elected office would be a distraction, and that’s why so many successful, brilliant and respected people don’t run for office.

But there is always the person who believes that he has some kind of belief in “noblesse oblige.” Often born into wealth and power, they come to the conclusion that they have to “give something back” by running for public office. Lacking the past of hard work or military service, they often invent tales of their own derring-do for public consumption.

Another thing they do is start “do-gooder” nonprofits, or more likely take the leadership of such organizations (it’s a lot less work to take over an existing organization), to give the impression of compassion for the less fortunate. This is mostly a scam, as we’ll see, designed mainly to impress voters, not help people.

The thing you notice about the working careers of candidates for public office is that they seldom spend a lot of time in one company or organization. Often, they spend a year here or there, and another year somewhere else. Candidates’ military service, because of the slow advancement and the barrier between enlisted and officer, is either nonexistent or limited to one enlistment of four years or less.

However, the military service will expand to mythic proportions when the candidate is running for office, and such persons will call service ribbons “decorations” and claim to have impressed very high-ranking officers with their brilliance and fortitude. At worst, some candidates may outright lie about their service, claiming rank and medals beyond what is on their DD-214 (discharge papers).

Military service can be an advantage when seeking a connection to a nonprofit that associates itself with the military, again as we’ll see later.

Of course, Jobs and Wozniak did involve themselves in nonprofits, if only to soften their images (and especially Jobs’s image) but at least they didn’t do as others in their industry did, and conclude that their business skills meant that they’d be great politicians. No, they saw that being a back-bench state representative not only would intrude on the time needed to run their business, it could be bad for their business, particularly if they voted the wrong way on a bill.

One thing you see with politicians is that they like to claim that every experience they have ever had has made them qualified for the office they are seeking. Mostly, this is rhetoric. Veterans will claim that their military experience has made them patriotic (read: qualified) and they’ll happily get photographed saluting the photographer or a flag or anything to show that they served in the military.

A key component to a successful political candidacy is to go outside the realm of your opponent’s experience and claim that skills you acquired make you the one candidate who can fulfill the position’s responsibilities. I learned that in college.

Back then, I took courses in political science and one was about candidates and candidacies (this was before the Internet age, by the way). One campaign shown as an example was a campaign for governor of Mississippi. In this time, the late 1980s, it was believed to be a bad idea to run a negative campaign against a woman, so the Republican candidate started hitting on the theme that the governor was the commander of the state’s National Guard, and charged with its equipping, use and morale.

The female candidate, a Democrat lacking military experience, could only watch as the male candidate got himself photographed for ads among military hardware, saluting the flag, wearing a ribbon-bedecked uniform and pretending to inspect troops. The male candidate won big.

Playing the military card can be a path to success, but it can backfire. I have observed that while Republican candidates can play the military card with impunity, inflating National Guard service almost into mythical realms, Democrats never can match that service, even when it’s real.

As a case in point, Democrat Jimmy Carter was a Naval Academy graduate who commanded a submarine. They don’t just hand out the keys to subs, people. To command one, you have to have something on the ball. He won in 1976 against a man with little military service (the “card” wasn’t played hard that year) but lost in 1980 to a man who appeared in movies about the military and sometimes mistook scenes in the movies for reality.

In 2004, Democratic Sen. John Kerry played up his three Purple Hearts in Vietnam and his service there as a Navy officer on Swift Boats, while incumbent President George W. Bush had his experience in the Texas Air National Guard, and an undistinguished career as a military pilot. Though Kerry had the military experience, Bush had the backing of the military and veterans, and that put him over the top easily. Again, for Democrats, playing the military card is risky.

Democratic congressional candidates, even with combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, have found campaigns to be very hard, if not impossible, to win, often against people the same age who did not serve. I believe the Democrats’ mistake might be that they are playing the military card too much and too hard, and making it a substitute for everything that people are looking for.

“I served in the Army (Navy, Marines, Air Force)” simply cannot be the answer to every question a voter might have. This is why former military candidates may be having such a hard time. By all means, a candidate should provide a true resume that includes military service, but not making a big deal of it might be the best approach.

Getting onboard
Check out a political candidate’s resume and don’t be surprised if you read that they’re helping the poor. The average candidate seems to be spending 24 hours a day helping the less fortunate, but the reality often is quite different.

Candidates and elected officials know that they have to score “compassion points,” and the trend away from the government helping people in need is in their favor. I’ve seen it so many times: a politician who seems to be everywhere people are hurting. How do they do it?

Simple. They don’t.

When the news reports a family in economic distress, the normal candidate or politician does not think, “There has to be a way for me to help these people.” No, he or she thinks, “Maybe there’s a nonprofit helping these people, and maybe I can get on its board of directors.”

The politician sees this as a cheap and easy way to claim he or she is helping the unfortunate while taking the credit for the work of others. He or she might have to make an appearance or two, and maybe hand out a pallet of bottled water, but the political benefits are enormous. “Jones aids poor families” is a great headline, even if all Jones is doing is reading a few sentences at a dinner (it’s comped for him or her) and getting a picture taken for the brochure.

Government social service programs and workers are considered parasites on the society, taking resources away, and politicians often are quick to condemn them, mainly because when the government helps everyone it’s hard for politicians to take the credit or take over. For a right-thinking politician or candidate, the ideal situation is to grab the top paying job in a nonprofit.

Think of it. As head of a nonprofit, either at the local, regional or national level, the politician elevates his or her status above the common herd and forever is associated with that organization. Consider this: Elizabeth Dole is assumed to be a very compassionate person. Why? She took a multimillion-dollar-a-year job as head of the American Red Cross.

Every blanket, every bottle of water, every stuffed animal for a child – in effect – came from her manicured hands. Granted, it didn’t get her far in the Republican presidential primaries, but she generated a lot of good will.

At the local level, being on the board of a homeless shelter is like hitting the lottery. Other favorite nonprofits for politicians and candidates include autism nonprofits, food banks, farmworker aid organizations, medical charities, hospital boards, youth clubs and more. Anyplace where the poor go for help, there’s sure to be a politician or candidate on the make looking to get on the board.

As I mentioned, the ultimate is to begin your own nonprofit, and run it as a personal source of funds. For years, it’s been an open secret that a well-known Kennedy scion has a nonprofit that pays that power bills of senior citizens who cannot afford heat and light, and it’s well-known that this particular Kennedy grabs about $250,000 a year off the top as a salary before anyone gets their light bill paid.

Politicians and candidates know that private nonprofits can keep their salaries and benefits somewhat quiet, though word might get out. Thankfully, with the demise of daily newspaper journalism, such stories rarely happen. Gushing profiles of how Smith or Jones are helping the poor can even be written overseas and placed in local papers, while the true facts lay undiscovered.

Candidates and politicians have many other ways to pretend that they care about you. In Part Two, I plan to look at things like exaggerating resumes in the areas of sports, academia and the military, and whatever else pops into my head.

In the meantime, read between the lines of a candidate’s profile and count how many nonprofit boards a candidate is on. Maybe even ask him or her what they’ve done to help the poor and unfortunate besides get their name on a list. Please send me your comments and suggestions.


July 3, 2012 - Posted by | Living in the modern age, Politics | , , , , , ,


  1. Very cool piece of journalism. I’ll be waiting on part deux.

    Comment by Diana in NYC | July 3, 2012 | Reply

  2. I’m working on Part deux now, and expect it to be done in a few days or a week.

    Comment by Vincent Safuto | July 3, 2012 | Reply

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