THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
A Vote of No Confidence
Have the choices with which we are faced
|We can only hope that we will |
see their like again
This certainly isn't the first era in which the parties were far apart and decent politicians with good intentions were few and far between. Periods in which the two major parties actually got along (more or less) have been aberrations. Commentators often point to the friendship between Bob Dole and George Mitchell when they were the leaders of their respective parties in the Senate. But how often has this actually happened? In politics, hostility is the norm, comity the exception. More often than not, presidents, governors, and members of Congress and state legislatures who were as genuinely concerned about the welfare of the nation and "the people" as they claim in their stump speeches labor mostly alone and in defiance of the political machines that got them elected in the first place.
No better example of this reality can be found in The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin's epic account of the rise of the great reformist presidents of the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and of their long and complex friendship. Much is already known about TR, a larger-than-life figure who enjoyed a level of popularity that is astounding by the standards of today's politics. The real revelation in the book is Taft, who was the public servant from central casting: conscientious, honest to a fault, a natural administrator, and a friend to everyone he met. Like TR, he had a visceral disdain for political corruption, against which he fought righteously in his home state of Ohio and later teamed with Roosevelt to carry on the fight on the national level. His sole desire in life was to be a judge, a role for which he was ideally suited, and to see justice done from the bench. An overwhelming sense of public duty induced him to accept, reluctantly, all of the political roles of his career: as solicitor general of the United States, the first American governor-general of the Philippines, a member of Roosevelt's cabinet, and finally as Roosevelt's hand-picked successor to be president. More than once he gave up a chance to be nominated to the Supreme Court, his crowning ambition, to answer the call of executive service.
In a cruel twist of fate, after Taft became president he and Roosevelt had a falling out that seemed to be the fault entirely of his predecessor's outsized ego and insatiable desire to be the man in charge again. Roosevelt had always regretted his announcement, the day after his re-election in 1904, that he would not run again because by 1908 he would have already served nearly two full terms. His long-time friend and ally would become the victim of his own thirst for power. Taft lost his own bid for re-election in 1912 with TR running as a third-party candidate of the so-called Bull Moose Party, thereby splitting the Republican vote and handing the election to Woodrow Wilson. Not until 1921 did Taft reach the pinnacle of his career, when Warren Harding made him Chief Justice.
Taft seems to have suffered from some of the political weaknesses of the current incumbent, who was elected exactly 100 years after him. Like Barack Obama, Taft was brilliant but considered even by his allies as too deliberate and professorial, too hesitant when it came to the tough decisions. In truth, their real shortcoming is that neither one of them was born with the ruthlessness of TR or his distant cousin, Franklin, men who combined the vision and will to change the country with the political killer instinct to make those changes happen. Unlike Obama, Taft was never criticized for being cool and detached. He was by all accounts a naturally gregarious individual to whom people warmed easily. He was the sort of man in whom, even if you didn't vote for him, you could at the very least have confidence that he would work very hard at his job, never line his own pockets, and never put his party ahead of the public good.
In different ways, Roosevelt and Taft were the kind of Republicans that even Democrats could support, and some clearly did. Roosevelt lacked Taft's innate friendliness and dignity, while Taft lacked Roosevelt's irrepressible energy and willfulness. But both represented a short-lived brand of progressivism that engendered broad appeal among the electorate. They fixed many things that were broken in both politics and business, and earned the respect of most of their peers and even higher regard from succeeding generations.
It's anyone's guess whether Ned Regan was specifically inspired by these Republican predecessors, whether the model they presented helped him decide to turn his own decency and skills to the task of running New York's finances. In any event, we are fortunate that people like him come along from time to time. The current comptroller is a Democrat, Tom DiNapoli, who seems to share Regan's ability to set aside partisanship and to carry out his job with admirable impartiality and thoughtfulness — for which he will likely be re-elected this year with wide bipartisan support. (He first came to prominence by running for a seat on his local school board on Long Island while still in high school.) But he is a member of an increasingly rare species of public servant. We are not so fortunate that the soul-destroying meat grinder of modern politics prevents even more of them from finding government service worthy of their energies. By all means, vote on Tuesday, but good luck finding even a single office on the ballot with two candidates, both of whom put your mind at ease that the government will be in safe hands, whoever wins.