Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Something you can count on: Bad conduct by politicians

As witnessed by the ongoing former Gov. Jim McGreevey family drama, the Spitzer sex scandal in New York and the subsequent Gov. David Paterson sex scandal (Spitzer’s successor), the state of area politics is in poor shape.

I could list some other recent political scandals, but why bother? The scandals are all the same: Long-time politician gets bagged for doing something he said he wasn’t doing, has epiphany, and either blames people for getting caught or says he had some deep-seated problem.

In New Jersey, voters have become accustomed to every kind of filth and villainy by elected officials. Most Garden State politicians are good for big speeches, nice hair, capped teeth and ‘fightin’ for reform.’ I think everyone has caught on to the reality of the whole thing by now, though.

In New York, it’s probably the same thing.

What amazes me about both New Jersey and our neighbor on the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel is the kind of people that the electorate has put in our charge of our respective states.

On every Campaign Trail last year, this year and next year, the voters hear about what sparkling characters candidates have. Much will be made of the ‘air of dignity’ about the honored national, state, county and even municipal candidates.

Everyone says campaigns should be “about the issues.” But seldom are campaigns only about the issues.

Voters want to vote for people they like, or that remind them of themselves. There is a ton of psychology surrounding why people vote for various candidates. It’s an illusion, though.

Behind the big smiles, ‘heartfelt values,’ friendly photo opportunities, ardent supporters and colorful campaign signs there are just people. The candidates, office holders and appointees are just people, who are as fallible as the rest of us. Maybe the only difference between candidates and the electorate are candidates’ ability to posture and, in many cases, lie outright about character and agendas.

Don’t get me wrong, I have known some great elected and appointed people in my time, on both sides of the aisle at all levels of government. Similarly, I have known some of the worst examples of humankind in the same places.

In 10 years at this paper, and 3 other years writing news for various papers throughout this state, I could probably count on both hands actually decent people I have known in the Legislature. There are and were a few good ones at the county level, and there are and were many good people on the municipal level.

Yet, all in all, in my experience the bad dramatically outweighs the good. I have come to believe that there is something broken in the character of most politicians, simply by virtue of their need for adoration by many people and the want of power to legislate others. What kind of person aspires to that? In a few there might be the want for community service, but for most of them it is just the want of power and position and that is all.

I have seen a male politician cry in front of a governing body on behalf of support for a women’s rights issue, and I’ve seen the same guy picked up by the police for stalking women countywide the next day. During my news career, I have seen nearly every form of low thing done behind the scenes (Democrats and Republicans alike) to gain political advantage.

What I have reasoned in that time is that the hype surrounding campaigns amounts to cheap parlor tricks. Indeed, what voters should hope to expect is not morality, or even good character from anyone on the ballot. But maybe – just maybe – it’s not too much to expect competent governance free of sensation and with an eye toward fiscal sense. Then again, maybe that’s too much to expect.

I’ve often been failed by optimism, but never by my pessimism for politicians of any kind.

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