Sometime after I read Ezra Klein’s terrific post about politics through a child’s eyes it occurred to me—and I apologize if others have already noted this, but I hadn’t—that Barack Obama’s choice to frame his speech in Tucson that way was fascinating, because the one thing I’d guess people remember from Obama’s Inaugural Address was his insistence that “the time has come to set aside childish things.”
Can we reconcile these two apparently contradictory pieces of rhetoric?
Yes, we can (as they say).
But it takes me to a different place than where Klein winds up in his post (and, to be clear, I’m not claiming that this is what the president meant). Here’s what I loved in his post: (I have to quote the full paragraph, because it’s just so good):
But what’s funny is that I don’t think the 9-year-olds are totally wrong. I’ve met a lot of members of Congress, and I do think most of them are good, or at least are trying to be. Serving in Congress is actually a sort of crummy life: You live in a small apartment, you spend most of your time missing your family, you’re constantly in airports, and when you do get home you barely have time to see your kids because you’re running to meet with constituents. It’s a grind. And—this is where kids and adults alike overestimate politicians—you’re not that important. No one cares about the speech you just gave or the amendments you just proposed. The media generally doesn’t pay attention unless you become part of a controversy, or say something dumb. You have to do what your leadership tells you. You get yelled at a lot. Most of the people who stick with the job stick with it because they believe they’re doing some good in the world.
But then he concludes:
But when the public looks at them, they don’t see it. Sen. Evan Bayh once told me that “we’ve got good people trapped in a dysfunctional system.” I still think he’s right about that. The individuals are trying hard, but the whole is a lot uglier than the sum of the parts. At some point, however, it’s up to them to change that. The problem is, no one member of Congress, and no one party, has much incentive to start.
See, I can’t buy that. Oh, yes, there are plenty of things in the way Congress runs that I’d like to tweak, or even reform in larger ways. But fundamentally, I think that politics, at least at its best, is about good people who are really, honestly, going to disagree. They’re going to disagree because their interests are different, their ideas about what government should do differ, or perhaps because they’re in groups that see the world very differently. Or maybe even just because they’re competing for office; power isn’t zero-sum, but electoral politics is.
My experience with most people is that it’s very, very difficult to accept that. We want white hats and big bads; we can’t quite see why everyone, at least everyone who is well-intentioned, can’t just work things out. Without the sausage-making.
But that’s not what real politics is.
So, yes, and apologies in advance for stretching out a bit here, but I hope people can follow Obama and see politicians through a child’s eyes and recognize that most of them really are public spirited and well-intentioned—and also follow Obama and put away childish things, and accept that good people can fundamentally disagree with each other, fight hard against each other, engage in calculated and maybe even devious maneuvers, act out of self-interest, and otherwise behave like real, complex, people.
Politics? It’s gonna get messy. Don’t let that deter you from jumping in. Don’t give up on it.