We Need People Of Proven Competence On The Private Side In Politics

Lawrence R. Velvel

It is this writer’s thought, and I believe the facts support, that today the vast majority of our politicians are professional politicians.  That is to say, most of them have spent all or nearly all of their adult lives in politics.  Relatively few of them have had decently long careers in the private sector.  Still fewer have had what could be called truly significant careers in the private sector -- the kind of career that, for example, Jon Corzine had, or Tom Coburn (to choose both a liberal and an arch conservative).  Some have been government prosecutors (usually state rather than federal government prosecutors, one imagines -- i.e., have been a state’s attorney as opposed to a U.S. attorney, one imagines).  But even if it is harsh to say so, I don’t think that really counts.  For being a state’s attorney is, and even being a U.S. attorney often is, a highly political job.  It is not like being on the private side.

It may be perverse to say so, but one can’t help wondering whether the fact that so few politicians have significant experience on the private side, and even fewer have been major successes there, is part of the problem with today’s politicians.  If it is, one equally wonders whether it ought to be one of the factors addressed by the new third party which this blogger believes is the only way this country is likely to overcome the political problems plaguing it.

Politicians who have had no private careers, still less significant ones, have nothing to fall back on if they lose office.  The best they usually can hope for, perhaps the only thing they can hope for, is to become highly paid lobbyists -- for a federal politician, this means to become one of the K Street crowd.  But politicians don’t want to lose elections regardless of the possibility of becoming another of the locusts of K Street or its state-level equivalents.  Those who have had no significant private careers, and have nothing to fall back on, are therefore desperate to stay in office.  This must be one of the reasons they are so willing to lie, cheat and steal, so to speak, to remain in office.  That is, this must be one of the reasons they talk out of both sides or all four sides of their mouths, why they are dishonest, why they lust after the legalized bribes called campaign contributions, why they do the bidding of the wealthy while screwing over the common man, why they are too cowardly to stand up to evil.  When you have nothing to fall back on, after all, your choices are more circumscribed than those of someone who can say, “To hell with you.  I’ll go back to a satisfying job delivering babies.”  Or “I’ll open my own investment bank.”  Or, as once (and for decades) was true of major figures in the Executive, “I will go back to being a senior partner in a Wall Street or La Salle Street law firm,” or sometimes even a downtown Washington law firm.

There is another factor involved, too.  People on the private side, and even the more so among those who are major successes there, of necessity have the ethos of getting the job done, the ethos of accomplishment.  This is worlds apart from the political ethos, which is to talk, talk, talk, not to get the job done, to talk, talk, talk rather than to accomplish great things, to try to offend nobody, or at least as few as possible, rather than to take well thought out positions.  The ethos of getting the job done seems to be sadly lacking among professional politicians, who talk, talk, talk and do so in a way that they hope will advance  their wish that everyone will like them, or at least that nobody will dislike them.

If I am right in thinking that people with long, significant careers on the private side, those who have been major successes there (unlike George Bush, who was a major failure there), would bring to politics some characteristics that are sorely needed there, then this is plainly something that a new third party should be cognizant of.  This is the more true because it is unrealistic to expect the professional pols of our two current parties to encourage their own replacement by a different breed of cat -- even if the new breed of cat is in some respects a throwback to the successful private side types who were so prominent, indeed preeminent, among the founding fathers whose veneration is an American civic religion (albeit one honored in the breach).

But the idea that more of our politicians -- perhaps even most of them -- should be persons with records of success on the private side does raise certain questions and does give rise to certain criticisms.  To begin with there is the question of whether successful people will leave their careers to run for and hold office, and will do so despite the savage, often irresponsible nature of the present day media.  My personal suspicion is that, despite the good for nothing elements of the media, in a climate which is welcoming apart from such elements, the answer would be yes for a lot of persons.  Not all, but a lot.  There used to be a tradition of public service in this country that was illustrated by major private side figures like Root, Stimson, Acheson, Forrestal, Stevenson, Richardson, Dillon and Vance.  One suspects that a lot of successful private side people today, too, would be interested in service if we encouraged them to it and respected them for it, and if they felt that they would not be called upon to abase oneself as current politicians do.  Nor would they have to serve “time without end.”  Four years, six years, eight years would be sufficient from the standpoint of the public interest.  If they do not fall into the trap of Potomac fever, and do not fall in love with the ego gratifying perquisites of public office (to which they should be less susceptible than professional pols because they, unlike the pols, get similar gratification on the private side), then four or six or eight years might be sufficient from the individual’s standpoint in many or most cases as well as from the standpoint of the public interest.

It is also said that individuals who are successful on the private side expect their orders to be followed without question.  They are unprepared for the extensive discussion and compromises of public life, it is claimed.  If this is true, it is to some extent desirable, not undesirable.  For it reflects the ethos of getting things done, which is exactly the ethos needed in public life.  But beyond this, the universal accuracy of the criticism is subject to serious question.  Lots of private endeavors involve compromise.  (If you wish to test the truth of this, try being a private lawyer in a large multi-party, multi-multi-lawyer trial.)  As well, the famous figures of bygone years from the private side who were also major governmental servants, illustrate that people from the private side can indulge the necessary give and take, can make the needed compromises.  We are, after all, discussing the need for people who have shown they can be successful, not private side hacks like George Bush or, for that matter, Rumsfeld or Cheney, who were nothing but professional pols chosen to head private companies strictly because of their political connectedness and who, especially Cheney, did not necessarily do such a hot job on the private side.

Then there are a couple of possibly twinned criticisms . To seek candidates who are proven successes on the private side may be criticized as elitist and as too likely to unearth many more conservatives than liberals.  Well, if it is elitist, so be it.  We need competence, and if it is elitist to seek those who have demonstrated it, then call me elitist.  Not to mention that competence comes from a host of walks of life, has no racial, religious or gender limits, and will be shown by lots of people who have worked themselves up from nothing.  And plenty of people who are competent will be liberals, especially perhaps those who have had to work themselves up from nothing.  Competence, after all, is not the exclusive preserve of the conservative.  (Nor is incompetence, notwithstanding Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest of that inept crowd.)

There is also the fact that proven competence on the private side will not necessarily translate into competence in political matters.  Bill Frist perhaps exemplifies.  But this does not alter the fact that, given the pass to which we have been brought by our host of professional pols of demonstrated incompetence, it would be wise to try people who in other endeavors have demonstrated competence.  Remember, after all, Root, Stimson, Acheson and the others named above.

And, finally, there is the question of whether one considers certain types of jobs to be private side jobs, or equivalent to them even if the jobs are technically governmental ones.  One thinks of two professions in particular, academics at state universities and the military.  With regard to universities, my own view is that it makes no difference whether they are state or private.  They are highly political entities with the same kind of non-accomplishment-oriented talk, talk, talk ethos as government itself.  Yet there are those whose success in higher education bespeaks an attitude of getting the job done and bespeaks competence.  So, in this writer’s view, it really depends on the person rather than on the fact that one comes from higher (or previous) education.  As to the military, one admits to being a little leery because the military of today is so often a highly political institution where, despite often very high levels of innate ability, people have nevertheless adopted and in their pores absorbed don’t-rock-the-boat, CYA attitudes that are too much like those of professional pols.  In this regard, one’s view is not wholly unaffected by the fact that too many generals went along with the disasters of Viet Nam and Iraq, and that, despite his reputation for alleged candor and forthrightness, John McCain, a military hero, not only got himself involved in the Charles Keating affair, but of late seems to have become no better than any other pol in kowtowing to the worst elements in pursuit of his desire to be President.  Nor is one’s view wholly unaffected by the fact that Colin Powell, in service of their desire to invade Iraq, capitulated to and lied for his deeply incompetent masters, the three stooges, aka George, Dick and Don.*

  *This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel.  If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at velvel@mslaw.edu.  Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.

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