Now that the election season is full upon us I, like you, have had my mailbox jammed full with large and glossy pieces of light cardboard informing me about the merits and flaws of the various candidates. While I am glad that the Post Office is making money off of politicians instead of having politicians trying to de-fund the Post Office, I have been concerned to learn many things about the candidates that I could not have imagined just a month or two ago. This is especially disconcerting because, due to a life of 30 some years in Montana politics I know most of the candidates personally.
I am troubled to find out that people I have liked and respected for these many years have fatal flaws in their character that I never would have imagined in all the time I have known them. I am also troubled to discover that those candidates whom I have not respected have so many redeeming qualities that I am ashamed to have ever thought ill about them.
But, after pausing to give the matter some thought, I have come to believe that my initial impressions have been right and that I am just being fed a line of bull by people who are willing to sell their soul to get elected. “How dumb,” I ask myself, “do they think we are?” And the answer that presents itself is that if we are willing to have our minds changed by these glossy mailers we are exactly as dumb as they think we are.
Many of us long for a plain-speaking politician—a Harry Truman or a John McCain—who will tell us what we need to hear instead of what we want to hear. Sure, some listeners would be offended enough to ditch their support for the guy, but wouldn’t others flock to him because of his honesty? Well, I would agree with that analysis, but that’s a single instance. The next time she or he levels with the public on a different issue different folks would have their feelings hurt and since the admirers of the politician’s honesty are already all on board it results in a net loss of fans for the candidate, and that will happen on each and every subsequent occasion when the candidate does the noble thing.
Defeat by honesty is noble, but it doesn’t do anybody much good except make a great epitaph, “He was an honest man…doomed to failure”.
So politicians are wise or cagey according to your lights, and the result is that people get told what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear. That task is left to scientists and reporters—people who don’t run for office and so can risk the truth. A very wise man—a politician—once gave me some good advice about lobbyists; “They will show you one side of the coin,” he said, “it is up to you to turn it over.”
So, instead of believing the tripe coming out of our mailbox, web pages, and finally, ears, we need to turn the coin over. We need to make allowances for politicians we differ with somewhat, and support them for the greater good.
We know that’s what we should do.
But we won’t.
Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at missoulacurrent.com.