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What makes, very often, the best and the brightest go into politics? A desire to change the world, a quest for power, but once faced with the moral dilemmas of the office (Horse trading the very destinies of people), where do you draw the line? In Brooklyn many years ago, the local assemblyman, a Harvard Law School graduate and a man who had nearly climbed Mt. Everest, sat down with me one day in his office, and while he fielded calls from Mrs. Schwartz about the dog poop on her sidewalk, and Mr. Boyle about the noise from the McDonald’s drive-thru, and before he took off in his battered Datsun (it was that many years ago) for the photo op at the temple, he wearily recited the public servant’s oath. As he rubbed the same point on his forehead (already collecting wrinkles), he told me about how being a politician was the greatest calling in the world and he couldn’t imagine doing anything else. “What am I going to do, work for General Motors? General Motors doesn’t need me, these people do,” he said, nodding at the congestion on the street below, and going back to rubbing his forehead.
Only a few years later he was out of politics and practicing law. What happened? “I wanted to eat normal hours, and sleep normal hours, and I got married,” he said, with a new lift in his voice. “And I realized,” he admitted, “I’d have to sell my soul to get anything done. And I’d have to wait in line behind the other guys who were doing the same thing.” He now lives far from Brooklyn, in the suburbs, and I’m sure has occasional pangs of conscience about abandoning the quest, but is becoming a partner in his firm.
Others do stick it out and play the game, and never lose their soul. I’m sure their moral dilemmas are many, but they’re the ones who change the world.
Barack Obama started out with all our expectations. Whether you were Democrat or Republican you were astonished that this man—the product of a biracial home and raised by a single mother in many locales, including Hawaii and Singapore—adding Asian to his background—could literally come out of nowhere with all the smarts and savvy in the world and take America by storm and right the racial wrongs of this country in one swoop and become her president. That evening in Chicago when he came onstage with his family to share with us the delirium of seeing him president was one of the most intoxicating moments in American history, let alone political history.
And so what happened? We raised him so high that he could never meet our expectations. He turned out to be a cautious man, a law professor with gifts, not a Martin Luther King with a mission. And the world also overtook him: a world of prejudice that wouldn’t let him function properly, and a world full of menace that, it seems, with all his smarts, he just didn’t know how to handle—and maybe nobody can.
The tide of politics will turn once again in the next election (the electorate is always cyclical) and for Democrats a new ice age will likely begin and Barack Obama will fade into becoming a lame-duck president and our once-bright expectations will fade with him. But cheer up, Mitt Romney might run again.