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Statesman or politician?

Published February 23. 2013 09:02AM

I'm sitting at a meeting of a board of elected officials, watching as one of them struggles mightily to make a decision that will tip the balance in favor, or against, an important proposal.

The official thinks, and thinks hard, for several uncomfortable minutes, before casting a vote. This official is one who truly cares about the town's best interests; one who has no personal agenda driving voting decisions.

"Politicians all too often think about the next election. Statesmen think about the next generation," theologian James Freeman Clarke once said.

It's a tough job, statesmanship. In my decades as a newspaper reporter, I've gotten to know many, many elected officials: Some are politicians, others are statesmen.

People campaign for public office for myriad reasons. Some run for a seat on the school board because they are concerned about the direction of education. Others run for the same seat in order to get a buddy's son or daughter a job, or because they seek the limelight; to get on stage and get the lights turned on.

Some people seek seats on a borough council or a township's board of supervisors because they want to donate their time and knowledge to make the municipality a better place to live. Others seek the seat with a specific goal in mind, whether it's to wreak vengeance on another official they believe wronged them, to gain control over a coveted piece of property, or to be able to do favors for friends.

Some people, the politician-types, are very, very good at enlisting their fellow board or council members in their cause, even if that cause is ill-conceived or mean-spirited.

Many elected officials I've come to know fall into the "statesmen" category. They take time to study issues, listen to all sides of arguments, and debate merits instead of simply attacking their opponents. They rarely see issues as black-or-white. They answer questions honestly even the tough ones, and invite citizens to offer their own opinions.

Other elected officials, unfortunately, seem to approach duplicity much as they would a competitive sport. These are the politicians, according to Clarke's definition.

These are the people who make promises to get elected. They are the ones who go into office with agendas, and by their actions, betray the citizens and send their towns into downward spirals of mistrust and backbiting. They are magnets for strife. One hallmark of a politician is arrogance.

On the other hand, a statesman's actions are transparent. He or she is willing to explain, defend, and open all to public scrutiny. A politician hides his actions, dealing in secret to get what he wants.

The hallmarks of a statesman are humility and integrity.

Although former Secretary of State and Nobel Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger believed otherwise "Ninety percent of the politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation," he once said I'd like to believe the "politicians" are in the minority.

Kissinger, by the way, was not using the word "politician" in the Clarke sense.

In less than three months, we'll head to the polls to nominate a new crop of community leaders. As we walk toward the polling place, we'll likely be besieged by campaign workers and candidates, offering pamphlets, emery boards, combs, magnets, and other trinkets emblazoned with their names. They'll do their best to get us to promise to vote for them.

Over the next 88 days, the names of candidates seeking nomination to office in the May 21 primary election will surface. Voters will have the right to select their leaders.

Get to know these people. Study their backgrounds, their friends. Look at their decisions in life, and where those decisions have led them.

Choose wisely.

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