In Time, the Undiluted Joys of a First Election Must Yield to the Complicated Realities of Governing

Friday, June 3, 2011

There's something about the election to the state legislature of an idealistic young man or woman that does our hearts good. An eager, big-dreaming, 20-something, newly-minted state rep is a walking affirmation of The American Way.

We're happy for that nice young person who is now on her way to claim a seat at the State House. And we're happy with ourselves for putting her in that spot. If our community is capable of rallying behind someone that good, our silent reasoning goes, we must ourselves be pretty good, and, yes, we do have our heads screwed on straight for the future.

Having a case of incurable optimism and a sincere respect for our system of government in all its error-prone and delusional humanity, I'd normally be the last person to put a pin in such sentiments. But when I think of how government actually operates, and of how the imperatives of our system dictate to the human beings functioning within it, not vice-versa, I have to wonder if our high schools and colleges should be injecting more realism into their civics courses.

We shouldn't hesitate to emphasize to our children, for example, that the making of laws is inherently contentious-bordering-on-the-nasty, and that when we fight it out with words, ideas and emotions in the state houses of America, it is very good indeed, for the only alternative is physical force and coercion.

Ninth grade is definitely not too early to introduce impressionable young minds to Machiavelli's "The Prince," with such gems as this:

"Everyone admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have relied on their word. You must know there are two ways of contesting, the one by law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man."

Anyone fortunate enough to hold elective office will accomplish more, will rise higher, if his understanding extends dispassionately to the depths of human nature and if he has left behind forever the framework of black-and-white when dealing with his peers. (The devil in the House chamber today could be tomorrow's angel.)

This summer we will come to the second anniversary of the death of Ted Kennedy, in whose name an institute for the study of the U.S. Senate will soon materialize on the shores of Dorchester Bay, next to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Many of us cherish the memory of Ted Kennedy because of all that he did for Massachusetts and all that he accomplished, often against high odds, during 47 years in the Senate. We do not dwell, however, on the harder traits required of a Ted Kennedy to be a Master of the Senate.

A prince must always maintain "the majesty of his rank," Machiavelli advised.

This Ted Kennedy certainly did, even to the point of a majestic rejection of a formidable ally and benefactor, as when he turned down Bill Clinton's entreaties to endorse Hillary for President and embraced Obama instead.

I was reminded recently of the enormity of this move when I heard of a former Clinton cabinet member remarking on how Clinton did everything he could in 1994 to accelerate federal grants to Massachusetts when Kennedy was fending off a stiff re-election challenge from Mitt Romney.

When we delight in the election of an idealistic young newcomer to the legislature, we don't ponder how he or she might one day have to channel a Ted Kennedy or, say, an Everett Dirksen, for whom a majestic Senate office building in Washington, D.C. is named. (It was Dirksen, the great legislative leader from Illinois, who once famously said, "If you can't eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women, and still vote against them in the morning, you don't belong in this town.") Why invite the sadness in at such a hopeful juncture?

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