The Need for Both Passion and Humility in Politics

08/07/2007 07:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today, I delivered a speech at the Chautauqua Institution that calls for a politics that balances the passion and power we need to confront the injustices of our time -- foreign or domestic -- with the humility to make sure those same qualities do not overtake our fight for change.

Good morning and thank you for inviting me to participate. The Chautauqua Institution is truly a
national treasure. It is a place for contemplation and a place for reflection, a place where
platitudes and slogans can be set aside and be replaced by thoughtfulness and introspection.

When I last spoke here in the summer of 2004, I talked about our work in the Attorney General's
office - specifically about the failure of self-regulation in the marketplace and the periodic need
for government intervention.

So it's especially gratifying to be here with you again - both to contribute my ideas in some
small way to this year's program on national security and to reflect on my first seven months as

Those of you who know me recognize my core belief that without passion and conviction in
politics we are doomed to fail. What I'd like to reflect on today - and this may come as a
surprise to some of you - are the inevitable risks that occur when passion and conviction are not
sufficiently tempered by humility. How we manage these risks, it turns out, may be just as
critical as the fight itself.

I will make this case in two distinct arenas: our current foreign policy and our effort to challenge
the status quo in Albany.

As a starting point, I want to spend a moment reflecting on the challenges facing this country and
the world after the last World War. How we responded, or didn't, to those challenges can help
us understand how to respond today.

After Fascism was defeated, the world faced another system that was just as vicious and just as
cruel: Communism. At the time, the United States was divided on a basic issue. Some wanted
to retreat into the post-war glow and disengage from the rest of the world. Others wanted to arm
and fight anywhere and everywhere, no matter what the means or the consequences.

One person who attempted to bridge this divide was a Missouri-born minister named Reinhold
Niebuhr - who, I must point out, became a New Yorker, moving here in 1928 to teach at Union
Theological Seminary in New York City and remaining in New York until his death in 1971.

A Balanced Path

Niebuhr came of age during the worst years of what Isaiah Berlin called "the most terrible
century in Western history." When he toured French-occupied Germany in the aftermath of
World War I, Niebuhr witnessed firsthand the carnage of war. And as the minister of a church in

working-class Detroit, he witnessed the brutality of poverty and the precariousness that
characterized daily life for too many who struggled at the lower end of the economic pyramid.

At first, he confronted these injustices with moral persuasion and reason, subscribing to pacifism.

But his thinking evolved. In 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression and on the eve of
Hitler's coming to power, he published Moral Man and Immoral Society, which decried the
moralist response, both secular and religious, as naive. He observed of the moralists: "They do
not recognize that when collective power...exploits weakness, it can never be dislodged unless
power is raised against it."

As he examined the dehumanizing condition of Detroit's working class, the injustices of Jim
Crow racism and the ravages of modern warfare, Niebuhr concluded that neither religion nor
rationality alone could address these and other blights - that one could not simply reason these
injustices away. Without the use of political power, Niebuhr believed, we could not really
address injustice.

As he grew more realistic about the status quo's resistance to change, he cast aside his pacifist
tendencies and became an influential supporter of American intervention to prevent the rise of

If Moral Man and Immoral Society defined the necessity for power, it was another of Niebuhr's
works, The Irony of American History, which defined the risks attendant to unbridled power.

Twenty years after Moral Man and Immoral Society - after a Second World War and the rise and
fall of fascism - Niebuhr recognized the threat I discussed at the beginning: the growing specter
of Communism. However, he was also disturbed by what he saw as the two prevailing public
responses, which he saw as equally naive.

He wrote that: "Our idealists are divided between those who would renounce the responsibilities
of power for the sake of preserving the purity of our soul and those who are ready to cover every
ambiguity of good and evil in our actions by the frantic insistence that any measure taken in a
good cause must be unequivocally virtuous."

Here, he denounces both the wooly idealists and the "us v. them" and "all or nothing" mentality
that would lead to the many misadventures of war, the imposition of dictatorships, and the
domestic hysteria of McCarthyism.

Instead, Niebuhr argued for a third way.

He defended the use of power to confront Communism - but not the kind of unfettered,
unreflective power advocated by some. He cautioned against the dangers of power with this
corollary: "We ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its
exercise, nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt
the justice whereby the exercise of power is legitimatized." Inherent in the exercise of power

driven by moral compunction is the danger of overreaching.

Indeed, it was the combination of these two forces - power and humility - that allowed Niebuhr,
as the late Arthur Schlesinger observed, to vehemently oppose without contradiction both Joes at
the time - Joseph Stalin, the embodiment of Communism at its worst, and Joseph McCarthy, the
personification of the paranoia that gripped some in our nation throughout the 1950s.

Niebuhr understood that the exercise of power can be shocking and, at times, corrupting. But he
also understood that power is absolutely necessary to fight the battles that must be fought. The
trick is to fight these battles with humility and constant introspection, knowing that there is no
monopoly on virtue. Moreover, this combination is simply more effective. For power
untethered from humility is certain to eventually fail.

Power and Humility in Foreign Affairs

So how can our understanding of these principles strengthen our fight against global terrorism -
the central question of this week's program?

I understand it is somewhat easy to wax critical on the current state of foreign affairs from the
relative comfort of a state capital, but, nevertheless, allow me to explore this for a moment.

Think back to the time when the United States was founded. We began a national experiment in
liberal democracy, based upon a set of principles: individual rights, checks and balances, free
enterprise, the free exchange of ideas, the rule of law and democratic government - principles of
tolerance - of a certain realistic view of human nature that echoed James Madison when Niebuhr
wrote: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice
makes democracy necessary."

At the time, such a democracy was unprecedented. It was based on ideas that had only been
written about, but never fully tested.

And so the rest of the world looked on and waited for our experiment to fail.

But in the last 200 years, something remarkable has happened. Liberal democracy has thrived.
During this stretch, at least a half-dozen other governmental systems have fallen by the wayside.
Not just the monarchies, tyrannies, aristocracies and theocracies that dominated 200 years ago,
but also systems like fascism and communism - each of which had their run at one time, but,
with important exceptions, have been discarded into the dustbin of history.

It is liberal democracy that has emerged as the dominant form of government - so much so that
at the moment of the Soviet Union's collapse, one leading thinker ventured that we had reached
"the end of history." Francis Fukuyama wrote that "What we may be witnessing is not just the
end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of
history as such - that is, the end point of man's ideological evolution and the universalization of
Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

At the time, however, some people with a broader view pointed out: "Wait a minute. You're
forgetting about the rise of fanaticism" - and, implicitly, terrorism.

What makes the fight against terrorism so different than any we have faced in the past? My
former political science professors probably would have better answers, but several reasons
come to mind.

First, it's because of the convergence of fanaticism and technology - weapons of mass
destruction, electronic communication, the Internet - that allows individuals or groups of
individual terrorists - without the support of state infrastructure - to wreak havoc on a level
unmatched in our history. Terror bred by fanaticism has always been present. Yet it's this
opportunity presented by technology that fundamentally transforms it today.

Second, because terrorist groups have become trans-national - their ideological moorings not
necessarily tethered to the needs or interests of any one place - our old paradigm of negotiation
through diplomacy, the balancing of power, and containment and deterrence is far less central.

And third, it's because many of the old dynamics that fostered stability are no longer as relevant.
For many terrorists, mutually assured destruction is the objective, not the deterrent.

So how have we responded to this threat? Not with power tempered by humility - but by pure,
untempered, hard, raw, shock-and-awe power.

We must begin with the premise that terrorism is an insidious threat, and that we must not shy
away from directing the full measure of our power against it. But, this represents only one half
of Niebuhr's thinking, and our national leadership has forgotten the corollary.

In the wake of World War II, Niebuhr warned that "we are so deluded by the concept of our
innocence that we are ill-prepared to deal with the temptations of power which now assail us."

Yet, that is exactly what has happened in the wake of 9/11. Niebuhr's warning means just as
much today as it did back then. Because while the threat has changed, human nature remains the

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon shook our nation to the core.
Americans were deeply frightened, sad, and angry, and they rallied around a President who, at
the time, showed impressive certitude and calm.

In that moment, with the public and the world fully behind him, with no Congressional
opposition to speak of, and with extraordinary national wealth at his disposal, President Bush had
enormous, nearly unprecedented power.

And yet he failed.


I believe it goes much deeper than the reasons we usually hear - stubbornness, a refusal to hear
differing perspectives, an inability to adapt to changing circumstances on the ground and a
misunderstanding of other cultures.

These are all true, but they are each symptoms of a much more fundamental flaw.

At the heart of it, the intervention in Iraq has failed because the Administration lacked any sense
of humility and embraced a self-righteousness, which destroyed their judgment.

Interestingly, that is not what President Bush spoke of before assuming office. During a debate
in the 2000 election, the president was asked how he would project America's power in the
twenty-first century. The president answered: "If we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll
welcome us. Our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that's why
we have to be humble."

That is precisely the right point. But President Bush didn't understand that humility has to be
more than just a talking point.

In the wake of 9/11, he ramped up exactly the wrong way. His approach, and the rhetoric that
would define it, perverted our foreign policy with arrogance and moral complacency - laying the
groundwork for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. We had no exit strategy because the
Administration didn't think we needed one. The President and his neoconservative cohort were
so sure history had ended and that the triumph of liberal democracy was inevitable. Mission

Reasonable people disagreed about the invasion - often because of false intelligence - but that's
not the point. Rather, the point is that the hubris of this administration clouded judgment and
prevented them from exercising power intelligently. It led to a lack of planning, failure to use
alliances, premature declaration of victory, torture, misrule, and the undermining of rights. All
of these failings were justified by the belief that any means was acceptable to obtain our stated

Of course, recognizing the importance of humility does not mean we should abandon what we
believe is morally right. The difference between us and terrorists is clear. The danger of a
foreign policy driven by hubris, as Iraq illustrates, is that we become blind to our own fallibility
and make terrible mistakes.

Yet hubris is even more dangerous than that. In time, without a greater amount of humility, great
power will not simply cause us to make mistakes. It will be our undoing.

As Niebuhr wrote, "If we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary
cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed
by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not
by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory."

To quote an old saying: "Hubris is terminal."

Going forward in our foreign policy, we must balance power and strength with some humility.
That does not mean that we don't fight power with power. But it does mean that when we do,
we realize that we cannot possibly anticipate every outcome, so we plan an exit strategy; that our
power alone is not always enough to overcome every enemy, so we build alliances; that, as
circumstances change, our current path may not always be the most effective, so we must be we
willing to admit mistakes and adapt; and that - even if the danger is so clear and present now -
there will one day be a time when our war is over, so we have to look beyond near-term victory
as the only end in sight.

Changing the Status Quo in Albany

As I have described, Niebuhr attacked those wooly idealists who would not stand up to foreign
enemies and would retreat into isolationism. But he was equally cutting against those who did
not stand up to domestic dangers.

He observed that "the injustices in society...will not be abolished purely by moral and rational
suasion." Instead, he argued, "Conflict is inevitable, and in this conflict power must be
challenged by power."

It was this point that I raised in my Inaugural Address: that only when we are willing to confront
power with power - only when we are willing to enter what New York Governor and President
Teddy Roosevelt called "the arena" - can we even begin to address the injustices of our time.

So I would now like to shift to domestic affairs and get closer to the current context in which my
own administration finds itself.

To confront the power that drives the domestic injustices of our time, we have to understand its
nature. Fundamentally, the drivers are not the usual suspects we hear about on TV - such as big
corporations, globalization or the wealthiest one percent.

The most powerful force that drives the domestic injustices of our time is the status quo. And we
will never achieve real progress unless we confront it head-on.

When I talk about the status quo, I'm not offering up a straw man - that the status quo simply
represents the policies I oppose.

To me, the status quo is a real force, a product of several things, including: a combination of
interests that are directly vested and benefit from current policy; the resistance to change inherent
in human nature; and the totality of despair, exhaustion and cynicism that have worn people
down and discouraged them from believing that real change is possible.

That's why we need to push as hard as we do. Because we are not just pushing for certain
policies or against certain interests - we are pushing against a constellation of forces that are
financial, psychological and sometimes even inherent in human nature itself.

Because what we're up against is so powerful, our effort to change the status quo will sometimes
be marred, as it has been, "by dust and sweat," as Roosevelt said. But that does not mean we can
back down.

It was in this spirit that I campaigned for Governor.

I ran for office with the slogan that "On Day One, Everything Changes." Now, everyone loves
to make fun of that. "Hey Spitzer, it still rains." "Spitzer, people still make fun of me."
"Spitzer, my kids still misbehave." What can I say? They are all right. Every single wrong in
New York was not suddenly righted on January 1st.

But that wasn't my point. The voters knew what I meant was that something fundamental would
change on Day One because there would be a new passion and energy in Albany to match the
power of the status quo.

As I noted in my first State of the State Address: "The status quo always has powerful friends.
But we in New York have our own more powerful friends - we have the men and women of this
state who work and struggle each day to give their children a better life."

And we need all of these friends. Because in Albany, as in anywhere else in the world, moral
and rational persuasion, while necessary, are not enough to change something so entrenched and
so powerful as the status quo.

Take any number of issues we have fought for in our first seven months.

We inherited a health care system that was funding the wrong kind of care in the wrong kind of
setting, and we were breaking the bank to do it. New York spends more on health care per capita
than any state in the nation and yet 15 percent of our population lives without health insurance; a
greater percentage of New Yorkers die of a chronic disease than anywhere in America; one in
four children have asthma, and one in twelve have diabetes.

Our Medicaid bill was at $46 billion per year, growing at a rate of eight percent annually without
generating the results to warrant those expenditures.

In January, we came in and said, "Wait a minute. How can the most expensive health care
system in the country produce these kinds of results?"

The answer was simple: the status quo. What had happened was that health care decision-
making had been co-opted by every interest other than the patient's interest. So we were left
pumping billions of dollars into a broken system with no deliverables and no accountability.

That is what we set out to change.

We proposed a budget that, at its core, was an effort to move from an institution-first health care
system - in which policy and funding decisions were driven by large health care institutions - to
a patient-first system, in which every decision, every initiative and every investment we make
would be designed with the patient's interest first.

But the health care system was not going to restructure itself. The powerful health care interests
were too invested in the status quo, and there was absolutely no reason for them to change. So
they didn't.

When we got here, we started pushing back, and something powerful emerged. A coalition of
patients, providers, advocates and legislators, who had long realized the failures of the current
system, emerged to exert the political pressure necessary to change the system.

To be sure, the status quo responded, and did so with fervor - launching a multi-million dollar ad
campaign - the largest ever by an interest group - to keep the system the same.

And while we still have a long way to go, in the end our coalition prevailed. We were not just
able to achieve $1 billion in savings - reducing our Medicaid growth rate from eight to one
percent - but we were also able to expand health insurance to all of New York's 400,000
uninsured children and were able to begin fundamentally transforming our health care system to
put patients first. And, importantly, we were also able to establish a $600 million fund for stem
cell research.

Take our education system as another example. We inherited a system that was inadequately and
inequitably funded. For over a decade, the previous governor fought an epic court battle to keep
the system the way it was.

Just like the health care system, our school aid formula - which had been frozen in concrete for
decades - was not all of a sudden going change itself. Even a court mandate was not enough.

It took the mandate we were given by the people to force change. We were able to build a
coalition of teachers, parents, advocates and legislators that resulted in not just the largest-ever
investment in our schools, but the institutionalization of a new funding formula that will allocate
that investment according to academic instead of political needs.

The property tax system that is driving our young people out of the state and our seniors out of
their homes was not all of a sudden going to become fairer on its own. We had to exert the
political pressure necessary for this kind of change to occur.

Several months ago, we enacted the largest property tax cut in State history, but we did so in a
way that targeted the greatest cuts to those who need it most - middle class New Yorkers whose
property taxes have been rising too fast for their wages to keep up. Yet, to this day, there are
forces working to strip out the fairness that we fought so hard to make real.

The campaign finance system that was one of the weakest in the nation was not going to
magically become one of the strongest. Why would those who got elected under the current
system want to tinker with what has worked for them for decades? But we were able to marshal

the support of New Yorkers everywhere who were fed up with a corrupt system, and prove that it
really was in everyone's interest to change the system.

Several weeks ago, working with the Legislature, we were able to achieve a bipartisan agreement
that will mark the most significant reform on this scale and scope since the Watergate era. We
will for the first time put a hard limit on soft money contributions. We will ban all contributions
from lobbyists. And we will close the two most porous loopholes in the system, which have
allowed corporations and individuals to contribute unlimited amounts of money to political
candidates. Ultimately, these reforms will help weaken the special interests' grip on the status
quo and increase the voice of the average New Yorker in Albany.

I could go on, but I think I've made the point: Even if we believed we had reason on our side in
every one of these cases, reason was not enough. We had to aggressively use the mandate the
people gave us to change the rules of the game.

What it all adds up to is that we have proved in the last seven months that change is possible -
that when you push hard enough, you can galvanize a new coalition that is more powerful than
even the status quo. While a few sparks may fly, the result in the end makes it all worth it.

Because change is possible. As this becomes more and more apparent, our momentum will
build, our coalition will grow and the hopes of New Yorkers will be realized.

A New York where every person has the opportunity to realize his or her full potential;

A New York where no one falls through the cracks;

A New York that we hand over to our children in better condition than the one we inherited; and

A New York that is built to compete in today's flat world that is both more integrated and more

That means more good-paying jobs and economic opportunity; better quality health care at a
lower price; smaller class sizes and more accountability; less government spending and more tax
cuts, housing we can afford to rent and buy; cleaner air, lakes and land; and a higher education
system that is both affordable and preeminent.

Indeed, we must realize a Progressive Era for the 21st Century.

Now some have said that we have been over-aggressive in this effort.

I do get exercised when I travel the state and meet the real New Yorkers behind the problems I
just outlined. I meet people without good-paying jobs, people without health insurance and
people who have to say goodbye to their children who are leaving for opportunity elsewhere. I
meet homeowners doing everything they can just to hold on to their homes under the crushing
burden of property taxes. And I meet parents who know that their children are not getting a good
enough education to compete in the knowledge economy.

Some say that I should settle down, go slower and not push so hard, so quickly for such
transformational change. To them, I say that you misunderstand the size of the problems we
face, the strength of the status quo and the urgency of the people's desire for change.

I promised to take their frustration and their call for action with me to Albany and channel it into
real change. And to a great extent, it's worked.

When asked one time why I push so hard, I answered that "you can't change the world by
whispering," and I truly believe in raising our voices against injustice and apathy. But it is also
true, as one writer said, that the greatest gift you can give others is to truly listen, and I want to
listen to all New Yorkers, regardless of party or political persuasion, to hear their ideas for
making this state a better place.

As Niebuhr observed, we "need a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power
available to us" and "a sense of contrition about the common human frailties and foibles which
lie at the foundation of both the enemy's demonry and our vanities."

That gets me to what I want to conclude with today.

As we engage in our fight for change, we must remember what history has taught us about the
danger of power and passion - the very lesson I discussed earlier - that without vigilance and
humility, righteousness can become self-righteousness.

Over the past few weeks, it has become evident that this principle was forgotten. We were
fighting so hard for what we believed was right that we let down our guard and allowed our
passion to get the best of us. I have accepted responsibility for these failures.

In case anyone thinks that my allusions to the Bush administration earlier in my talk suggest that
I am comparing what went on in the last several weeks to the failed policies in Iraq, let me
disabuse you of that. But there is a thread that binds this all together: whether you're fighting
wars abroad or fighting for change at home - is that we must always balance strength with

So how does one avoid descending into the self-righteousness that can so easily overtake good

I can't claim to know the entire answer. But I know it begins with acknowledging that a layer of
self-examination and self-criticism is necessary. As a public official, the question of how to
maintain that equilibrium must be one of the questions you ask yourself every day.

Another critical part of the answer is that humility comes from remembering who and what
you're fighting for.

As I was saying earlier, I've spent a lot of time over the last nine years traveling the State and
talking with New Yorkers about what needs to be done. Every week, I take trips like this one, to

get out of Albany so I can better understand the needs and priorities of the people in this state,
like the ones I discussed a moment ago - like the mayor whose inner-city is crumbling around
him, or the family that can't afford health insurance or the senior who is struggling to pay her
property taxes. Their faces and their challenges serve as a constant reminder of the need to stay
grounded in what our goal must be.

So to maintain the right equilibrium, you can never lose touch with the people who sent you
here. That is why there is no place for self-righteousness in my administration. That's my
renewed promise to New Yorkers. But, there's also no room to stand down in the face of a still-
powerful status quo. That's the promise that sent me to Albany.

Power must be used, but it must be tempered by soul-searching and the recognition of our human
capacity for error. That is the maxim that should inform our approach to every challenge, from
reforming state government to engaging in foreign affairs. In both areas, we cannot become so
convinced of the rightness of our cause that we give less scrutiny to the rightness of our means.

In Albany, going forward, we will apply this understanding as we continue our fight for a
revitalized economy, lower taxes, more jobs, lower health care costs and better schools.

What happened was clearly a setback. But we are just at the beginning. We have learned an
important lesson. And in the end, our fight for change will be stronger for it.

I have spent the last half hour calling on a Protestant minister to help me analyze our current
situation, but I would like to close with a proverb from my own faith. The Jewish prophet Micah
once asked: "What is good, and what does the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love
mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"

Thank you.