By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D.
A few weeks ago, I was privileged to listen to the inspiring words of noted Civil War scholar James I. “Bud” Robertson, Jr. as he addressed SLLF’s annual Leadership Roundtable in Scottsdale, Arizona. Among the many insights offered by Dr. Robertson, I was stuck by one in particular: the lack of statesmen in modern politics.
Inquired Robertson, “Whatever happened to political heroes? Will we ever have great statesmen again? We have many politicians, but a politician thinks of the next election. A statesman thinks of the next generation.” Dr. Robertson raised this very valid question after reminding us that our nation’s greatest crisis, The Civil War, was the result of a failure of compromise and statesmanship. He noted that the cost of that failure went well beyond the 600,000 lives lost to include the loss of books those men might have written, problems they might have solved, diseases they might have cured and the contributions that might have been made by the children and grandchildren they never had.
As I ponder Dr. Robertson’s question, I wonder if there are indeed no statesmen and stateswomen out there or, rather, if we are just not looking hard enough or not looking in the right places to see them. Are we so jaded by the “gotcha journalism,” public skepticism and distrust of government that marks our age that we do not see the statesmen and stateswomen right in front of us?
Maybe we don’t have a Lyndon Johnson risking his political future and that of his party to support the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but perhaps we do have a Speaker of the State House assigning capable minority party members to leadership positions and treating their ideas and bills with respect to the frustration of her caucus. Perhaps we don’t have an Abraham Lincoln putting everything on the line to save the country, but if we look closely, we might find “tea party” legislators voting for unpopular tax increases to the consternation of their partisan constituents so that schools can be adequately funded and streets kept safe. While we may not see a Janette Rankin opposing both World Wars out of principle, we can find, if we look hard enough, a legislative leader assigning a bill he does not like to a committee where it will still get a fair hearing or a young legislator declining to win an election on a campaign of half-truths, rumors and innuendo.
Maybe, just maybe, political heroes are all around us and we can’t (or won’t) see them. They are doing the little things that make the process work better in their state, reaching across the aisle now on small issues to build relationships that will pay off on big things later. They are working behind the scenes with leaders from the other chamber to build coalitions to initiate discussions about compromises on critical issues. They are urging and counseling their members to act to bring honor rather than disgrace to the people’s chamber.
If you are a legislator or a legislative leader, I challenge you to be a political hero in small ways, if not big. Lead the right way. Vote yes or no on issues for the right reasons. Use your position to improve the lives of those you serve. Do the right thing and encourage your colleagues to do so as well. For the rest of you (and me), I challenge you to look for and encourage those political heroes and statesmen and stateswomen around you – look for those public servants who are leading, in big and small ways, the right way and say thank you. And, who knows – with encouragement, those little acts of heroism and political courage might lead to the big actions of statecraft that America needs and deserves.