Do Our Politicians Have ‘Hometowns’?

March 27, 2008

Indiana Writers Group column for release April 2 and thereafter (668 words)

by Craig Ladwig

We note with admiration how easily Bill and Hillary Clinton (with native son Evan Bayh jetting in from Washington) found connections in the Hoosier crowds during their campaign stops. It was almost as if they . . . well, as if they lived here. Truly, politicians are global citizens now. They don't have hometowns anymore in the traditional sense.

And yet, when it comes to democratic representation there remains a pesky provincialism in Indiana. At the very least there is an expectation that our politicians, who owe their status and ample retirement benefits not to marketable skills or business acumen but to the loyalty of a constituency, should retire amid that constituency.

None can say that Bill, Hillary or Evan, now welding power and influence around the world, won’t return to Hope, Chicago or Shirkieville when their days of public service are over. It’s a good bet, though, that they won’t.

And if you're going to join in that wager you'll want the term “hometown” carefully defined. Most politicians could answer honestly that they plan to retire to their Indiana hometown but only if you accept a mailing address as a home.

What the rest of us mean by a hometown is what Harry S Truman, “the man from Independence,” meant by a hometown. *

Keeping tabs on the retired president wasn’t difficult. Harry was always at home except for his morning walks. And this was the home, please know, that Harry owned before he went to the White House.

“I've been taking my walks around the city and passing places that bring back wonderful recollections,” Truman wrote. “The Presbyterian Church where I started to Sunday school at the age of six years, where I first saw a lovely little golden-haired girl who is still the lovely lady that is my wife. What a pleasure to be back here at home — once more a free and independent citizen.”

Times change, say those who reject such sentimentalism. The new politician, it can be argued, serves his hometown best by maintaining a presence near a power center — Washington, New York or, if duty calls, the capitals of Europe or the Orient.

Most of us would buy that except for the fact all the places in which our former politicians choose to serve in retirement are decidedly nicer than the Indiana towns from which they first petitioned our trust and support.

What is it about the climate of Arizona and the Gulf of Mexico or the social swirl of Georgetown that so commands an attention of Hoosier interests? Wouldn’t chance dictate that at least one retired pol, though resigned to serving Indiana from afar, end up somewhere without 365 days of golfing weather or a celebrity at the next table?

And while we're at it, isn’t there somewhere that our governor and legislative leaders could visit on their annual summer trips in search of Hoosier jobs that doesn’t require a luxurious jet ride to Europe or the Pacific?

Seemingly not.

Perhaps it's not so much the times that have changed as the leadership that has changed. A British historian, Paul Johnson, relates a conversation between King George III and an adviser following the shocking news from Yorktown:

“What will George Washington do now?” the king asked.

“I expect he will go back to his farm,” was the answer.

“If he does that, he will be the greatest man on earth,” the king responded in sincere admiration.

That, in fact, was what Washington did, Johnson notes, first at the end of the war and again after being called from Mount Vernon by election to the presidency.

Indiana has nine months remaining in another season of modern election campaigns marked by unbridled ambition and narrow factional maneuver. It may have seen the last time a person of accomplishment with a sincere call to public service simply waited at home among family, friends and neighbors until he or she was elected to something.

T. Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review. Contact him at cladwig@inpolicy.org.

* Truman's middle initial has no period because, oddly, it doesn't stand for anything. The editors of the Kansas City Star, however, perversely required that it be written with a period because it so irritated the former president. Clearly, there are advantages and disadvantages to this hometown thing.



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