Thursday, May 29, 2008

Division without Conquest

There was an excellent article in this week’s Longmeadow News (May 29, 2008) called “The Making of a Politician” by Alex Grant, a Longmeadow resident who once applied to fill a School Committee vacancy. The first insight in the piece, in my view, is that we are all prone to the habits of politicians; the same habits that often frustrate and annoy us as voters – pandering and conflict avoidance.

Grant describes his interview with the Select Board and School Committee when he was seeking to fill the vacancy on the School Committee left by Paul Santaniello’s election to the Select Board. The boards will be engaged in a similar process in just a few weeks as a result of Bobby Barkett’s election to the Select Board this year.

Grant skillfully describes the ease with which we all fall into the pattern of saying what our audience wants to hear (or at least not saying what they do not want to hear), and how office seekers do so by making only the most general of promises and claims, such as the improvement of “collaborative working relationships” or “getting more aid from the state” in the case of local elections. Heaven forbid we take positions that will generate criticism or cause “divisiveness.”

Grant’s insight here that our urge to please and avoid conflict may cause us to miss the big picture would have been enough to make me think, but he goes further by describing his own encounter with “[t]he School Committee member given to histrionics” who asked him at his interview if he was “comfortable with discomfort.” He describes his inability to resist the urge to equivocate on this question in the hopes of appeasing even this School Committee member whose approach to the job he dislikes and would not seek to emulate. In so doing, he has illuminated his point with artful precision. He has shown us both how easy it is to be unintentionally ineffectual and has acknowledged the dangers of learning this lesson too well. Pointing out that too much passion can lead to “histrionics” (which may do more harm than good) makes his firsthand account at once more subtle and more instructive.

I agree with Mr. Grant that we must redouble our efforts to clarify “larger truths” and worry less about losing support. I also agree that we must be as vigilant about not trampling the trees in our drive to illuminate the forest. The task for our would-be leaders is to speak hard truths without hardening their audience’s prejudices. As the now “former” member of the School Committee “given to histrionics,” I appreciate the opportunity Mr. Grant’s thoughts have given me to reflect on these fundamental aspects of political leadership and hope that this year’s candidates and voters take time to consider them as well. I intend to devote considerable energy to the study of the question: Can political leaders divide without seeking to conquer?

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