01/11/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Changing Politics From The Bottom Up

Earlier this week, a friend of mine became a naturalized American citizen. At her swearing-in ceremony she received a packet of documents briefing her on different aspects of citizenship, including laws and responsibilities. Inside the packet was a letter on White House stationary, signed by President Bush. The second paragraph of four reads as follows:

"Americans are united across the generations by grand enduring ideals. The grandest of these ideals is an unfolding promise that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance, and that no insignificant person was ever born. Our country has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by principles that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests, and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every citizen must uphold these principles. And every new citizen, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more, not less, American."

I like this letter a great deal, especially the part about ideals and principles. It reminds me of my great-uncle Herbert Lehman, four-term governor of New York, senator, Director General of UNRRA--the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration--and a far, far cry from Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

My great-uncle really believed in the precepts expressed in President Bush's letter. As a child I was privileged to overhear conversations about the responsibilities of leadership and the strong and uncompromising principles required of public servants. That's what this scion of the Democratic Party said about himself back then, that he was a public servant. There was no false humility, no working the angles, and no posturing either. His words weren't rhetoric -- they were spoken for the benefit of his family. A man of great compassion, I remember being with him the day JFK was assassinated, and I remember seeing a man in such anguish his heart might as well have been caught in a bear trap. He died a few days later, but my parents continued to repeat and emphasize his lessons for decades to follow.

I've been thinking of my great-uncle's values in the context of my friend's achievement, and of what it actually means to be a citizen. Our nation represents the sum total of what each of us does to become a better person, to subscribe to the ideals of the founding fathers, to participate together in perpetuating our grand experiment that in the not-so-distant past was the envy of the world. Seeing the whole as an expression of the sum of the parts, perhaps even more than the sum, fits perfectly with the ancient Eastern philosophy I teach and study professionally. That discipline emphasizes self-cultivation and learning the twin skills of going with the flow and keeping one's equilibrium so as to produce harmony, and encourage peace.

Watching the news about Blagojevich following directly in the corrupt footsteps of his predecessor, George Ryan, who is presently in prison for similar shenanigans, I couldn't help but think we have strayed awfully far from these core concepts, awfully far from politics as noble service, awfully far creating a country that is the envy of the world. Pay-to-play schemes, conspiracy to commit wiretap and mail fraud? Solicitation of bribery? Weapons of mass distraction have taken our eyes off the ball and we've put celebrity ahead of virtue and immediate gratification ahead of doing what's smartest and best for ourselves in the long term, our communities, our country and our planet.

The more sleaze we see in politics the more all this talk of change becomes not nearly so much a campaign slogan or political rallying cry as a plaintive plea of some segment of our population who still holds close the very American idealism of which these men make a mockery. This isn't a partisan issue, it's an issue of civic duty. There is a great opportunity to take to heart both President-elect Obama's vision of the country and Bush's letter new Americans so that our cultural legacy does not become cynicism, consumption and corruption.

It all comes down to making ourselves better citizens with an eye toward changing ourselves in precisely the way we want to change the country. No matter who's at the helm, this kind of change begins from the bottom up, not the top down. It's great to read blogs and books, to opine and converse and even argue, but in the end it's action and intention that count. If we all work on our own bad habits and weaknesses and messes, if we strive to keep our balance no matter what life throws at us, if we keep greed and ego and self-delusion under control and try to be better people, then honesty, patience, kindness, creativity and compassion will spread around the world and up the ladder like fire. Lofty goals and utopian talk, I know, but the kind my uncle and the ancient masters I follow would like to hear.