“For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters, musicians, and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”
– Gen. George S. Patton
I am a realist – a pragmatic seeker of that which is real and possible – and I tend to dismiss those who live in some chimerical fantasyland where ‘hope’ is the operative strategy.
For me, genuineness has always been infinitely more fascinating than make-believe. Perhaps because the truth is such a rare and precious commodity in modern life.
Even as a kid, I was never frightened by Halloween haunted houses – or mesmerized by the “magic” of Disney World – because I was always poking my head behind-the-scenes, pointing out the rods, pullies and animatronics that most pretend don’t exist in their desire to be willingly fooled and “entertained.”
My life experience, which includes graduating magna cum laude from the prestigious Institut des Coups Durs, has taught me that things are never quite as good – or bad – as we think they are.
But it has made me hyper-suspicious of politicians, magicians, and snake oil salesmen (sorry for the redundancy) who spin the truth and use deceptive persuasion, half-truths, and exaggerated sleight-of-hand to create an alternate reality that, over time, we come to accept as fact.
Look, don’t take my word for it.
Turn on any network news sideshow – or open a major newspaper this morning – and you tell me if anything you hear, see, or read materially comports with known facts?
In the aftermath of our local elections, I read with interest the pie-in-the-sky goals of some of our newly elected officials – many of whom are about to experience their first sweet taste of unbridled power and influence in the microcosm of city or county government – where the haughty trappings of office and the obsequious fawning of their “new friends” with ulterior motives can be more intoxicating than 101 proof bourbon.
Meeting those highfalutin goals won’t be easy for most – and downright impossible for some – and they will have no one to blame but themselves.
In a previous life, I once heard a story about a newly minted elected official who was invited to a congratulatory dinner following his election by a prominent real estate developer, and how incredibly impressed the neophyte politician – a service industry worker by trade – was when the wealthy businessman paid for dinner and drinks with a “black” American Express Centurion card.
I thought how easily alliances are changed, ethics compromised, and campaign promises broken when the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker enter this heady new world – where they are finally treated like “equals” and everyone laughs at their jokes – a slippery slope where they are told anything is possible with the right application of the people’s money.
An ultimately cruel and unforgiving place where they are immediately forgotten, like so much worthless rubbish, when they lose an election and no longer hold value for those once backslapping “friends” who stand at the nexus of public funds and private profit motives.
Nobody said public service would be easy.
If I were to purchase one gift for first term politicians preparing to take their seat on the dais of power, it would be a hand mirror.
When the time comes – and it will – when the crown lays heavy and the feeling of infallibility overcomes the willingness to listen, when their neighbors are screaming and chippie critics like me are bitching about how they screwed up the difficult calls, when compromising their ethics would be the easiest course, or those times when special interests are lobbying for a controversial policy or perquisite – they could take a hard look in that mirror and remember why they sought and fought to serve in the first place.
To those who have just ascended to high office, here are some things I learned from three-decades in public life that may help once the euphoria of the big win and well-deserved celebrations have ended.
And its some pretty good advice for anyone who currently holds public office.
Consider it a heartfelt gift from me to you – a primer on “How to succeed in government without really trying”:
Rubber-chicken dinners and galas with haughty awards, ego massage, and goofy accolades are not important – coffee with a concerned constituent is.
Humility and a true willingness to admit honest mistakes – then correcting them – is omnipotent to winning and keeping the public’s trust – because people can forgive those errors and omissions they see themselves making.
The loudest person in the room is not always right. They are not always wrong, either.
Your constituents understand that you are human, but they expect and deserve a commitment to the ultimate in ethical, moral and honorable behavior that respects human dignity, obeys the rule of law, and brings honor to public service.
And citizens demand that elected officials hold themselves, and others in positions of power, accountable for their actions – because anything less weakens the system.
It is also important to support career civil servants – listen to their suggestions and recommendations for improving service delivery – and never use them as pawns or scapegoats for political expediency.
Demand a high standard of excellence from the city/county manager – he or she holds more of the cards than any one elected official – and give the executive the courtesy of frequent, fair, and objective performance reviews so they know where they stand, what you expect, and how they can improve.
In public service, courage is defined as the mental, moral, and physical strength that sees us through challenges and allows us to do the right thing – for the right reason – and lead by personal example as you make the difficult decisions that touch the lives and livelihoods of those you serve under incredible internal and external pressures.
Find that inner courage – hold firm to your sacred oath of office and core values – and take pride in the fact your neighbors, staff, and fellow citizens have put their confidence in your ability to lead – and your vision for our collective future.
And never lose sight of the impermanence of power and position.
“All glory is fleeting. . .”
That is the reality of politics.