One evening during his presidency, John Kennedy hosted a dinner for several Nobel Prize laureates.
His toast before the meal went something like this: “Never has so much talent gathered at a single table in the White House since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
I had a similar experience locally a few evenings ago. There were eight for dinner: a surgeon, a former secret service agent, a surgical nurse who is a commercial pilot, two pastors, a very accomplished professional musician and a master teacher. And me.
The conversation and the social interplay were so interesting that none of us left the table at the end of the meal. We stayed put in those straight-backed chairs playing a sort of verbal volleyball on all sorts of topics. It was fascinating!
Later, as I replayed the evening in my mind, I got to thinking. I’ve met a great number of such intelligent and lively people in our Northwest and around the country. Smart people. Educated people. Interesting people. Curious people.
Which led to this thought: given all the political, social and economic problems we have on our collective plates, if you turned my dinner mates and some of these others loose on the issues, I’ll bet they could solve ‘em!
Which quickly led to yet another thought: none of these people would likely ever run for public office. None! Ever!
Why would these smart, educated, interesting, curious people put themselves in an arena of name-calling, single issue bashing, distrust, unrewarding and poorly paid circumstances which we have allowed much of our political world to become?
Harry Truman on politics: “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen”. Bill Clinton: “Politics is a rough and tumble, contact sport. You’ve got to be tough”. Barak Obama: “Sometimes, just as in basketball, you’ve got to put your elbows out and take a few licks”.
Go to a few public meetings or a town hall session or two. Listen to the abuse. Listen to charges of conflict of interest. Look at endless recall efforts in community after community dealing with city councils, school boards, city commissions and the like. Listen to the name-calling directed at volunteers trying to serve.
While we are fortunate to have a few well-qualified people who will swim against this abusive tide, we too often must settle for the lesser of two unqualified candidates with little background or proven record of accomplishment.
We have tolerated beyond reason some of the shrill, minority voices who have groundlessly and often ignorantly tried to pillory office holders who know the facts and are doing the best they can with what we’ve given them. Which in a lot of cases isn’t much.
Government, like water lines, highways and school buildings, is the most basic part of our infrastructure as a community and a nation. It is the bones on which hang the meat and fibre of our country. In a lot of instances, we’ve allowed too many of those bones to be weakened by tolerating a political arena where most of the kinds of people we’d like to have in charge won’t go near the job.
A recent survey of thousands of girls and boys by the Girl Scouts of America found that the vast majority of teens questioned wanted nothing to do with leadership in any guise. They didn’t want the responsibility, the notoriety or even the rewards.
In far too many instances we are to blame for those results. And for the uncivil discourse and outright abuse of many in politics and appointive office. We have settled too many times for job hunters or single-issue voices when we really needed well-rounded, articulate professionals to take on the jobs.
Professionals like my dinner mates. Smart, educated, interesting, curious. There are quite a few of these folks around. Just imagine what they … and you … could do if we improved the atmosphere of public service.