Wanted: Better Politicians

"Do you know your mayor, your city council man, your state legislator, your governor, your congressman, your senator? Are they as good men in their field as your doctor, the teachers in your local school, or the officers of your bank?"

"Government by amateurs, semi pros, and minor leaguers will not meet the challenge of our times," writes Mayor Joseph S. Clark Jr., of Philadelphia, and in the article which follows he confronts us with a scarcity which many Americans prefer not to discuss the scarcity of good men for public office. Here are the reasons for that scarcity, cited by one who turned away from his chosen profession, the law, because he felt it important to serve his hometown. Mayor of Philadelphia since 1952 and an Overseer of Harvard College, from which he graduated in 1923, Joe Clark and his fellow Philadelphian, Dicky Dilworth, have spearheaded the Democratic movement which recently took over that Republican stronghold.

JUDGED by the standards of baseball, how many politicians have we in the country who could play left field for the Giants? How many have we who could even get into the 3-I League? I think we have too much mediocrity in the business of running the government of the country, and it troubles me that this should be so at a time of such complexity and crisis.

Why should this be so in politics when it is not so in business and the professions? Why are there ten qualified candidates for medical school for every one accepted, when thousands of elective public offices and party posts go by default to mediocre contestants? Why are there five candidates for admission to the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration for every vacancy? Why do so many students who major in government gravitate to teaching and to the civil service instead of into politics? Is it because the qualifications for entry into politics are neither many nor exacting, and there is no need to pass an examination to prove one's competence?

Men become politicians in one of three ways:

First, they may start at the bottom as precinct committeemen, work for the party organization in the primary and general elections, become ward leaders, township or county chairmen, and be nominated for office as a reward for faithful service to the party. Sometimes, of course, they may skip one or two rungs of the ladder. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Joe Martin, and Leverett Saltonstall followed this general course. These four became skilled in the art and science of government through long tenure in elective office before they reached the summit of their careers. They knew "practical" politics from the ground up.

A second way is to ignore the party organization and to plunge into politics as a maverick, mounting the hustings in support of one's own claim to office and obtaining nomination and election without the support, and frequently despite the opposition, of the old regulars. This has been done by men of integrity as well as by mountebanks. Former Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., of Massachusetts, Mayor deLesseps Morrison of New Orleans, and Mayor Quigg Newton of Denver can attribute their success to this method; but so could Huey Long and Joe McCarthy. All of these individuals knew very little about politics when first elected to important public office.

The third way is to be drafted by a political organization to save it from defeat when none of the old regulars is thought to have much chance of winning. Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson are outstanding examples of this route to public office and a political career. Neither of them was versed in the art of politics when first pressed into service. Chairmen of party organizations all over the country would sell their shirts every year for committeemen and ward leaders with integrity, administrative ability, a gregarious nature, and the willingness to work the long, hard hours which are a necessary part of a political campaign and of public office. Every year they wring their hands over the lack of candidates with public appeal, with an understanding of government, and with the ability to speak clearly and tersely in public.

It takes much energy and self-discipline to speak constantly, intelligently, and persuasively on street corners, before captive audiences, over radio, and on television. Almost every year the political leaders have to look around for some citizen willing to be drafted who has not come up through the normal political channels. They have to take what they can get, and too often it is pretty bad.

Business and the professions, in their programs of recruitment and training, have kept pace with the times; politics, still operating on the elemental level of chance, is getting the leftovers.


MY FATHER, who is still alive, cast his first vote for Grover Cleveland in 1884. In that happy and relatively uncomplicated era, there were no telephones, typewriters, electric lights, subways, automobiles, airplanes, radio, radar, television, proximity fuses, or hydrogen bombs. Women did not work, and children quit school whenever their parents wanted them to. Hardly anyone went to college; most children did not finish high school. Labor unions existed in only a few industries. Nobody thought government had any responsibility in the field of social justice. Municipalities paid scant attention to health, welfare, recreation, or housing. Airports did not exist. Volunteer fire companies put out fires if they could. Air and water pollution, traffic regulation, and superhighways were headaches of the future. There was no income tax. The federal government operated on a surplus from customs receipts. The real estate tax was low and ample to support the cost of local government. Laissez faire was a popular slogan in both politics and economics. Men still quoted with approval Jefferson's dictum that government is best when governing least.

We could afford incompetence in politics in those days. We did not require much ability or experience of our mayors, congressmen, governors, or even at times of our presidents.

Today, government is both an art and a science; and the matters it deals with affect our safety, our welfare, and even our souls. We have only to compare the national platforms of the two political parties in 1884 and in 1952 to see how far we have come in our political thinking within the lifetime of one voter. We need only total up the federal budget, or read an annual report of the Atomic Energy Commission, or spend an hour on duty with a policeman or municipal traffic engineer to appreciate the vastness and intricacy of modern government, and the absolute necessity of ensuring a competent corps of politicians as well as administrators to support it.

But do you know your mayor, your city council man, your state legislator, your governor, your congressman, your senator? What qualifications do they have for the offices they hold? Are they as good men in their field as your doctor, the teachers in your local school, or the officers of your bank? Each of these elected officials has powers, alone or in conjunction with others, which affect your daily life at least as much as your doctor, schoolteacher, or banker.

This nation was fortunate at its birth. After 175 years the founding fathers still look good; and it is no coincidence that almost all of them were experienced politicians. In the succeeding years, whenever a serious national crisis has arisen, some great statesman has turned up to help pull our chestnuts out of the fire, to bring imagination and political skill to the solution of difficult problems. In my book there are five of them: Jackson, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, and Wilson. Four of them had wide political experience before assuming the presidency. The fifth was the country's leading authority on American government, and had just completed a term of office as governor of New Jersey. There was not a political amateur and no touch of mediocrity—in the lot.

These men were few, they were recruited by chance, and they exceeded—thank God—the expectations we normally are content with as requirements for public office—which are little more, I am afraid, than a genial personality, boundless energy, and a loud voice. (Since the invention of the microphone, one doesn't even need a loud voice.)

We need more skilled politicians if our democratic government is to continue to be a success. We haven't enough of them, and we haven't bothered as yet to learn why, let alone do anything about recruiting them.

Former Governor Bradford of Massachusetts once put it this way: "To live long in politics you must possess the hide of a rhinoceros, the memory of an elephant, the persistence of a beaver, the native friendliness of a mongrel pup. You need the heart of a lion and the stomach of an ostrich. And it helps to have the humor and ubiquity of the crow. But all of these combined are not enough unless when it comes to matters of principle you also have the ornery stubbornness of the army mule."

It may be conceded that these qualities can be developed without much experience in politics. Of course they can. One can also admit the validity of David Lilienthal's contention that young and middle aged men of ability in industry, in labor, and in the professions should regard it as part of the obligation of their career to serve a tour of duty in Washington or City Hall when called upon. But all of this should not blind us to the basic fact that politics is a profession which can seldom be mastered by an act of will or by sudden and short exposure. If the career of a Winston Churchill, or of a Robert Taft, or of a George Norris proves anything, it is that training is as important to a mastery of the art of politics as it is to medicine, engineering, or the law.

Why then do we not produce more and better politicians in America? The reasons, I think, are these: first, our national attitude toward the profession; second, its economics; and third, our lack of competent personnel planning. The average American has a picture in his mind of the successful surgeon, "the man in white," conducting a delicate operation to save a human life. He sees the successful lawyer arguing eloquently before the Supreme Court of the United States. He sees the engineer constructing the Hoover Dam. But the politician he sees as a heel on a soapbox making a fool of himself.

This attitude is reflected in the poll taken a decade or so ago which showed that seven out of ten American fathers did not want their sons to go into politics. I suspect the ratio has changed little if any. This attitude is reinforced by occasional contemporary outcroppings of corruption and smear tactics in public life. They create a climate of opinion which denies to politics the respect in which it is held in other successful democracies. In England, Switzerland, and Scandinavia, politics is an honorable profession. Until it becomes such in the United States, we are not going to get as many good and well-trained politicians as we need.

The second cause of our shortage of skilled politicians is economic. The governor of Maryland gets a salary of $4500 a year, the governor of Indiana $8000. No governor receives more than $25,000 a year—not even in New York, where the annual budget is a billion dollars. A position of comparable responsibility in private industry would pay at least $50,000 a year and probably more. A state legislator in Tennessee gets $4 a day; in Kansas, North Dakota, and Rhode Island, $5 a day. In Connecticut he gets $600 for a term of two years. The average legislative salary is $1000 a year, and the maximum—in Illinois and New York—$5000 a year. Considering the time which must be devoted to the job, my guess is that the rate of pay for most state legislators in America violates national minimum wage standards, being considerably less than 75 cents an hour.

This is the pay if one is successful in getting elected. The defeated candidate or the ardent political worker in a campaign which turns out to be unsuccessful gets nothing.

Finally, we have no peacetime method in America for channeling ability into those places in our government where it is most needed. We educate our young people more thoroughly and better than most other nations. We design and operate complicated machinery with great skill. We are preeminent in out supply and logistical activities. Our technicians are the envy of the rest of the world. But in the field of personnel planning, a necessary function in a civilized society, we rely on luck. We believe that the law of supply and demand will eventually take care of shortage and surplus. But it won't; and while we relax we may well go the way of other democracies which died for lack of leadership, notably Athens after the death of Pericles.


WHAT can we do to change the system? When I was a boy, Negroes were "niggers," Jews were " kikes," and Italians "dagoes." I blush now as I write the words; I would be ashamed to use them in public—and if I did, I would be justly pilloried by all who heard me. This change of attitude has come from a campaign of tolerance and education in the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. It is the result of a nation's education which began in the schools.

It may be difficult to persuade our newspaper columnists and our radio and television commentators that politicians are entitled to the same respect as doctors and schoolteachers. We have to begin by recognizing the danger facing the democratic form of government if we continue to hold elected officials up to scorn. The schools, of course, are the place to start.

In a sense, we have to break up a vicious circle. Politicians will be held up to scorn as long as they act from ignoble motives or prove incompetent as public servants. So until we get better politicians the profession will continue to get a bad press; and as long as it gets a bad press it will be hard to persuade people of competence to make it a career.

Hard but not impossible. There is enough glamour, enough challenge, enough opportunity for a life of service, in politics to attract a fair share of ability if the economic and social liabilities I have listed can be even partially overcome. Here are a few tentative suggestions:

1. The compensation of elected public officials must be increased until the financial reward is comparable with the return in other professions requiring comparable talent for success.

2. Pension and retirement systems should be substantially improved. Sixteen states make no pension or retirement provisions for elected officials. Hardly any state's system is adequate. The federal government, on the other hand, has a first class pension system available for congressional as well as for executive service.

3. Business, labor, and the professions should encourage young men and women in their employ to take up politics as an avocation. The tendency at present is all the other way. Political activity on the part of the young lawyer in a successful law firm, for example, is definitely discouraged in most big cities. A young banker or businessman would be likely to have his advancement slowed down, if not ended, were it known he was active in local politics (particularly if he happened to be a Democrat). Young men and women should be encouraged to go into politics, congratulated if elected to public office, given leave of absence during campaign time, and allowed to return to their jobs without loss of status and with a friendly pat on the back if they get licked. They will be more useful to their employers for the experience.

4. Women should be encouraged to participate more actively, especially where their husbands are also interested. By and large, women tend to raise the level of integrity and imagination in politics.

5. Political organizations must be persuaded to welcome intelligent recruitment to their ranks and must be more willing to reward men and women of high caliber and integrity who, in turn, are willing to do the often dull jobs which effective political activity requires. The best way of doing this is to break up political machines based on patronage and on alliances with racketeers and grafters. This, of course, is a long, hard process in which inevitably there will be many setbacks. I believe, however, that the trend since World War II has been toward a far higher standard of morality in political organizations than formerly.

6. Departments of Government and Public Ad ministration at our universities should be encouraged to institute in-service training programs for elected public officials. Such courses might well be connected with the summer school programs. During World War II special ten week courses were run by the Army's Command and General Staff School at Leavenworth, Kansas, to indoctrinate staff officers and division commanders in the duties they were about to undertake. They made a real contribution toward the winning of the war. Similar arrangements for candidates for public office should substantially improve the caliber of public service.

7. We might well consider the British system of equipping the local organizations of both parties with paid staff trained at national party expense and recruited on a career basis. This might be a partial answer to the current dilemma of how to adjust the need for paid party workers to the passing of the patronage system.

8. We must stop deriding politicians as men with lower standards than their contemporaries. A politician must have a thick skin. He will want to dish it out and he must therefore learn to take it, but he is entitled to a presumption of integrity to the same extent as the doctor, the schoolteacher, or the banker. And his private life is no more subject for public comment than that of members of other professions. Fear of smear is a deterrent to the entry into politics of many good citizens.

I have reserved to the last my definition of what we should look for in the skilled politician. He can be described, I think, in terms of the things he must be able to do. The good politician must be able to comprehend the problems of modern government in their range and in their detail; to link his actions and his thought with both the past and the future; to dissect problems of government, cut quickly to their core, and formulate alternative courses of action; to understand, support, and control intelligently the vast technocracy which now constitutes our career civil service; to exercise both compassion and restraint; to find a common denominator which will reconcile competing interests without diminishing the public good; to distinguish practical questions from moral issues; to know when to fight and when to yield, and above all, when and how to compromise; to withstand criticism without becoming insensitive to it; to know what to conserve and what to reform; and to keep his sense of humor.

In the belief that all men are created equal and with equal rights under the law, Americans regard the consent of the governed as a preliminary to effective action. Fearful of tyranny, we have divided responsibility among the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of our government without placing ultimate control anywhere. Jealous of civil liberties, we are prepared to lose a good deal of prompt efficiency in order to protect the individual against unscrupulous governmental action. Conscious of the fact that the greatest enemy of mankind is man, we impose wise restraints on elected officials—which, however, often keep necessary things from being done quickly.

Our Federal Constitution reserves residual power to the several states and to the people. Our system of local, state, and national government creates three layers of authority, often with overlapping duties and obligations.

Such a complicated system, designed to preserve liberty and yet encourage progress, can work in the modern world only if staffed with men and women of sound judgment and high intelligence. Government by amateurs, semi pros, and minor leaguers will not meet the challenge of our times. We must change our attitude toward the profession, increase its material and spiritual rewards, and offer the same minimum security to its practitioners as is present in competing occupations.

Above all, we must realize that it takes great competence to run a country which, in spite of itself, has succeeded to world leadership in a time of deadly peril.