11/09/2009 02:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Politicians, Public Servants, and Statesmen

CommonwealthPolitical journalists, especially, tend to describe all elected officials as “politicians.”  That is not necessarily incorrect.  They operate in the political sphere, engage in political discourse, and attempt to achieve, or block, certain political objectives.  But the word also is an opprobrium, connoting a scheming, self-interested, possibly corrupt, somewhat untrustworthy scoundrel.  A politician is always up to something he or she doesn’t want us to know about.

Occasionally, an elected official acts against self-interest: that is to say, takes a position or casts a vote that is not popular and that jeopardizes re-election.  That man or woman doesn’t fit the politician stereotype.  Such behavior is rare enough and surprising enough that we describe it as a “profile in courage” or even ask -- as Metternich did upon the sudden death of the Russian minister on the eve of the Council of Vienna (I think) -- What could have been his motive?

By an act against self-interest, or by voluntary retirement from office (not defeat) or by simply taking the long-term national interest into account, an elected official may suddenly become a public servant.  That seems to be the key: what is in the nation’s interest, not what is in the interest of my political career.  There are public servants at all levels of our politics.  They sometimes seem rare enough to be almost extinct.  But we look for them at election time and we often vote for a new face in the hope that individual will turn out to be a public servant not a careerist politician.

Rarer still are statesmen (and I use this term for both genders).  They are public servants with two additional qualities: an international view and a long view.  Circumstances now require many, if not most, members of Congress to know at least something about the world in which we live, though an amazing number do not hold passports or desire to see that world.  Mostly missing is the long view, the sense of history that enables the states-person to put an immediate crisis or challenge into context, to apply the lessons of history to the current problem.  We all know Santayana’s famous dictum: those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.  No one since has been able to improve on that judgment.

The qualities of statesmanship, judgment, wisdom, and the long view are so rare as to seem almost non-existent these days.  Statesmen there are, but they seem not to want to penetrate the political thicket necessary to serve.  We better start finding some and clearing some of that thicket soon.

Posted from Senator Hart's new blog at Matters of Principle.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?