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In My Humble Opinion

The Difference Between Statesmen and Politicians

     According to the World Book Dictionary, a politician is "A person who gives much time to political affairs; a person who is experienced in politics." A statesman is defined as "A person who is skilled in the management of public or national affairs." The difference in definitions is subtle, but the difference in practice is enormous.

     To use a football analogy, both Marion Campbell (former coach of the Atlanta Falcons) and Tom Landry (former coach of the Dallas Cowboys) were experienced coaches, and they devoted a great deal of time to their profession. Using the criteria for a politician, Campbell and Landry were equals. But while a politician is described as "experienced," a statesman is described as "skilled." Using that definition, Campbell was not in the same league as Landry.

     We are suffering from a drought of statesmen and a flood of politicians. It's like a diet full of calories with almost no nutrition. Statesmen are like vegetables. Many people don't like them, but they're good for you. Politicians are like too much ice cream. Yummy. I'll worry about the stomach ache later.

     The founders of this nation were not politicians. Many, like John Adams and James Madison had almost no political experience when they were elected to serve in the Continental Congress. Experience, no. But they had education, ideas, and conviction. Madison's silent labor and Adams' brilliant oratory did what all of the "experience" in the world could not. They gave us liberty and the most brilliantly devised system of self-government in history.

     Simple definitions aside, what is the difference between a statesman and a politician? A politician works with details. A statesman works with ideas. A politician debates over whether to raise the minimum wage by 50 cents instead of by 40 cents. A statesman, on the other hand, asks "If the government has the power to dictate the least I can make, don't they also have the power to dictate the most I can make?"

     A politician debates the cost of a plan. The statesmen questions the wisdom of the plan. A politician tells his constituents what he did for them. A statesman doesn't worry about what he can do for his constituents, because he's too busy trying to guarantee a future for his constituent's grandchildren.

     A politician follows the crowd. He lives and dies with his finger in the wind. Politicians maintain the image of leadership, but in reality they wait to declare a position until they see which is the most likely to get them re-elected. But as Woodrow Wilson once said, "If you think too much about being re-elected, it is very difficult to be worth re-electing."

     A statesman leads. A statesman doesn't bow to the screeching and wailing that often passes for opposition. The statesman follows the path blazed by John Adams, who said "Always stand on principle even if you stand alone," and by Congressman David Crockett, who lived by one rule: "Be sure you are right & then go ahead." That rule eventually cost Crockett his life.

     I suppose that politicians are like hornets and mosquitoes. We may never understand why we have to endure them, but they, like the poor, will always be with us. Statesmen are almost like dinosaurs though, doomed for extinction if not already extinct. The small (and small minded) survive and thrive, while the great and noble go by the wayside.

     Our amazing nation was founded by statesmen. Men of noble, though not perfect character. Men who held principle and ideology in such great esteem that no threat of pain or death could deter them from their dream of a constitutional republic guaranteeing liberty and justice for all. Such leaders are necessary to preserve that dream. But we don't seem interested in liberty and justice for all. We seem more interested in prescriptions and paychecks for all, regardless of who might have to foot the bill.

     Like many in the arts, the Greek playwright Euripides addressed social and political issues in his work. He theorized that people get the government that they deserve. Euripides was right. We don't want leaders, we want nannies. We may gripe, moan and complain about politicians, but we continue to ensure their survival. All they have to do is tell us what we want to hear, promise to "bring the money home" from Washington or Atlanta, and remember our names the next time they see us.

     We think we strike a hard bargain for our votes. But what's a few billion in entitlements and pork projects to an ambitious candidate? Statesmen earn votes, politicians buy them. After all, John Randolph said it best: "That most delicious of all privileges -- spending other people's money."    

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