Half Past the Month: ‘Unfriending’ the Career Politicians
by Craig Ladwig
The cartoonist for the Indianapolis Star wrote a good-hearted explanation over the weekend for why he has had to “unfriend” a family friend, the vice-president elect. One of his points is that those of us in the high calling of journalism cannot allow ourselves to be corrupted by political friendships.
“Just don’t mess up,” the cartoonist remembers warning the young Mike Pence before he left for Washington. “I don’t do ‘atta boy’ cartoons.”
But there may be more to it than that, something separate from the supposed ethical standards of my profession. Politics has become a career, a goal in itself — and not just any career, mind you, but a grander and more lucrative one than the politician ever dreamed possible.
It doesn’t leave much room for over-the-fence and coffee-shop chums. To be fair, once a friend enters politics, or at least the big-time versions, he can’t afford to tell you what he honestly thinks about . . . well, about almost anything important.
That doesn’t make for much of a friend. And sadly, few of the rest of us have the time these days to chat about the unimportant. A visit with your barber would be more instructive.
There is a related aspect of modern life: Politicians not only don’t have hometown friends, they don’t have hometowns. Do you suppose Bill, Hillary, Barack or Evan, having welded power and influence in Washington and around the world, will return to Hope, Chicago or Shirkieville?
Some of us miss the days when we sent people to Indianapolis and Washington to represent us as friends and neighbors rather than highly paid careerists. Harry S Truman was a model in that sense. In retirement, he was always at home except for his morning walks through his neighborhood. And this was the home, please know, that Truman 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,” he 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 modern politician, it is argued, serves his hometown best by maintaining a presence near the centers of power — Washington, New York or, if duty calls, the exotic capitals of Europe and the Orient.
But why do our former politicians after leaving office choose to live in places suspiciously nicer than the Indiana towns from which they first petitioned our trust, support and, yes, friendship?
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?
Perhaps it’s not so much that the times have changed as the leadership has changed. The 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?” his excellency 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 admiration.
Indiana is in the nascent stage of a new election cycle. It will be marked by unbridled ambition and narrow factional maneuver. Let us hope it will not mark the last time we see a person of accomplishment, a “free and independent citizen,” content to be at home among family, friends and neighbors until a call to civic duty might come.
And that call, dear political friends, should be for temporary duty.
Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review. A version of this essay appeared in the spring 2008 issue.