04/15/2012 02:10 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2012

Laws and Sausages

The issue of power and personality is raised by a lengthy New York Times profile of Robert Caro whose search for an answer as to how political power is accumulated and employed has led him into a multi-decade, multiple volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. To begin with, Caro wasn't that interested in Johnson. But the more his meticulous research revealed extremely complex facets of Johnson's life and behavior, the deeper Caro had to penetrate to try to answer the question of whether those facets were required to obtain the power itself.

A shorter way of asking the question is: Do you have to be a mean, unscrupulous, calculating S.O.B. to achieve and manipulate political power effectively. The usual answer to this perennial question is: No, but it helps.

As a former political practitioner, and an ultimately unsuccessful one at that, my answer would be: I hope not. Political scientists usually array various approaches to political power along a spectrum of idealism and pragmatism. So, it helps to have high ideals for using power but to be prepared to be "practical" in achieving those ideals. Practical in this context usually is codeword for everything from deceit to threat. But that formulation raises the equally complex question: At what point does the unprincipled use of political power betray the ideals that originally motivated the achievement of that power.

These questions are not about the usual deal-making and log-rolling, usually called compromise, necessary to make a mass democracy based on checks and balances work. I took part in it long enough to know how it works and how it should work. This discussion is about the point where achieving and applying political power involves behavior that betrays the system.

Such questions of ethics and morality are as close as the practice of politics ever comes to theology (something I also have some experience with). And it is probably that experience that causes these questions to be awakened yet again at this stage of a long life. Many Americans adopt the Churchillian adage that if you like sausages or laws you should never watch either one being made, a clever way of saying it is necessarily a messy process.

But isn't that true also of operating a Wall Street investment bank, running a university, or even administering a highly successful website? How far are we prepared to go in treachery to achieve what we at least believe to be noble ends? Unlike the examples just given, however, politics involves the public trust and national welfare. In my mind this means that the use of political power should respond to a higher, not lower, scale of integrity.

It is not necessary to lie, cheat, and steal to achieve great goals. In fact, in a democratic republic such as ours the opposite is true. Openness, a simpler word for transparency, is required to educate, involve, and ultimate enlist public support for public goods. If a majority of Americans don't want to know what goes on behind the corridors of power, it is because they assume, or are constantly told by cynical media chatterers, that it is a corrupt system being used against them.

Could civil rights legislation have been passed in the 1960s without massive manipulation of the political system in the Johnsonian manner, or was Franklin Roosevelt required to use complex behind-the-scenes maneuvering to get the U.S. into World War II? We will never know. Were we justified in using very undemocratic and unprincipled methods during the Cold War? And does that level of unscrupulousness continue in waterboarding and unlimited detention without due process of law? Each of us who cares about our country must answer this for ourselves.

But at the very least we all should be aware of the price a democracy pays for achieving its goals using these means and always be prepared to understand the corrosive affects on public trust when the truth comes out.