11/08/2014 08:24 am ET Updated Jan 08, 2015

The Problem and the Solution

The other morning I went to a Starbucks I am well acquainted with and know the flow of customer traffic. I went at a time when there would be a really good cross section of people: high school and college students, young adults, and older people. I concentrated at first on high school students; I knew they were just killing a few minutes before hurrying on to school.

I went from table to table, sitting down in a chair, and saying to the somewhat surprised students sitting around the table, "I'm William Bradshaw. I'm a writer working on an article, and I need your help. Would you mind answering a few questions?" The responses were always in the affirmative.

I started by asking if they could remember when they were really young what they wanted to do when they grew up. At first, the girls were more responsive then the boys. The most frequent answers were: get married and have kids, be a nurse, a school teacher, a singer, or an actress.

I then asked them, "Do you still feel that way." Most of them said they did not, although one still wanted to be a nurse and another a teacher. "If not, then what do you want to be?" I asked. The answers were varied: a psychologist, a school counselor, a stock broker, a construction worker, an engineer who operates technical machinery, and a scientist who works in labs to help eradicate Ebola.

By this time the boys were more willing to talk, so I turned to them. As little boys, they wanted to be policemen, firemen, professional baseball players, cooks in a restaurant, and a dad. And what did they want to be now that they were about to graduate from high school? A scientist, an engineer, a TV producer, a fireman driving high-ladder trucks, a lawyer, a high school coach, and a high school principal.

Before leaving each table, I asked the same question: "Did you ever consider being a politician?" After the shock of the question subsided, the reactions were pretty universal: "Man, are you crazy?" or "Why would anyone want to be a politician?" or "Heavens no!" I then would ask, "And why would you say that?" And, again, the answers were similar: "Politicians are dishonest" or "To be a politician you have to be a liar" or "No one respects a politician" or "You have to learn how to cheat if you are a politician, and I've been taught since a little kid that cheating is wrong" or "A Christian could never be a good politician."

I got many of the same answers from college students, except for one who wanted to be an astronaut and two who were attending a nearby seminary and planned on being parish ministers. And they all had the same general reaction as the younger students to being asked if they ever considered being a politician. By that time, most of the other people in the coffee shop had heard the questions I was asking, so I stopped interviewing, knowing the initial surprise of the question about becoming a politician was gone.

The next morning was really windy, so I went to a nearby mall to walk inside. The mall has an inside play area for young children. When I passed the play area and saw so many adults sitting around watching the children and talking, I couldn't resist doing more off-the-cuff interviews. Again, I went from person to person or small group to small group introducing myself the same way I had done the day before at Starbucks, and I got the same willingness to answer questions.

Once I determined the relationship they had with the children they were watching, I asked the same question, wording it appropriately for whether they were a parent, a grandparent, or whatever: "What would you like your daughter (or son or granddaughter or nephew) to do when she (or he) grows up?" The answers were usually general: "I just want her to be happy" or "I don't care what he does as long as it is something honorable." But when I pinned them down to specifics, they were very much the same as the responses from the college students: teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, accountants, and business executives.

And then I ended my conversations with that same question: "Would you like him (or her) to be a politician?" Every single person--young, middle-aged, elderly--responded in the same way as the students the day before: a definite "no." One grandparent responded with genuine disdain, saying she didn't want her granddaughter to have to go through life lying and cheating all the time.

In a few informal, non-sophisticated interviews I identified one of the primary causes leading to the problems we have in Washington, DC, today. People throughout the U.S. have such a bad opinion of politicians that in their early years they prepare for other occupations and vocations, never giving serious thought to becoming a politician. There are, of course, some extremely honest and diligent politicians--genuine text-book examples of what a politician should be. In far too many cases, however, those who end up going into politics do so by chance, being unprepared for what they are getting into, and the government and the citizen suffer the consequences. We wouldn't want just anybody defending us in court, or just any person performing heart surgery on us, or just anyone teaching school, and so forth. Even though people may be very well-meaning, they need training in order to be qualified to engage in such important professions. The same is true of politics; people need to be trained to enter politics.

The election is over, but the problems in Washington are not. But there is something you and I can do about that. We as parents, grandparents, community leaders, office holders, clergy, school counselors -- we as a nation -- need to talk with our young people and help them understand how important it is that we get the "cream of the crop" into politics. They need to think about being a politician early in their lives and prepare accordingly. Our educational institutions need to offer history and political science courses that enable students to understand the art and science of elections and governing. We need to recruit into all levels and fields of political offices the best of the best: honest, ethical, hardworking, knowledgeable, well prepared, and God-loving people who want to serve their country.

Let's just do it!