My life experience, which includes graduating magna cum laude from the prestigious Institut des Coups Durs (the University of Life), has taught me that things are never quite as good — or bad — as we think they are.
But it has made me hyper-suspicious of politicians, magicians and snake-oil salesmen (sorry for the redundancy) who spin the truth and use deceptive persuasion, half-truths, and exaggerated sleight of hand to create an alternate reality that, over time, we come to accept as fact.
Look, don’t take my word for it.
In the aftermath of our local elections, I read with interest the pie-in-the-sky goals of some of our newly elected officials, many of whom are about to experience their first sweet taste of unbridled power and influence in the microcosm of city or county government — where the haughty trappings of office and the obsequious fawning of their “new friends” with ulterior motives can be more intoxicating than 101-proof bourbon.
Meeting those highfalutin goals won’t be easy for most, and will be downright impossible for some, and they will have no one to blame but themselves.
I once heard a story about a newly minted elected official who was invited to a congratulatory dinner following his election by a prominent real estate developer, and about how incredibly impressed the neophyte politician — a service-industry worker by trade — was when the wealthy businessman paid for dinner and drinks with a “black” American Express Centurion card.
I thought how easily alliances are changed, ethics compromised and campaign promises broken when the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker enter this heady new world where they are finally treated like “equals” and everyone laughs at their jokes.
It’s a slippery slope where they are told anything is possible with the right application of the people’s money.
This is an ultimately cruel and unforgiving place where these neophytes are immediately forgotten, like so much worthless rubbish, when they lose an election and no longer hold value for those once backslapping “friends” who stand at the nexus of public funds and private profit motives.
Nobody said public service would be easy.
If I were to purchase one gift for first-term politicians preparing to take their seats on the dais of power, it would be a hand mirror.
When the time comes — and it will — when the crown lays heavy and the feeling of infallibility overcomes the willingness to listen, when their neighbors are screaming and chippie critics like me are bitching about how they screwed up the difficult calls, when compromising their ethics would be the easiest course, or when special interests are lobbying for a controversial policy or perquisite, they could take a hard look in that mirror and remember why they sought and fought to serve in the first place.
To those who have just ascended to high office, here are some things I learned from three decades in public life that may help once the euphoria of the big win and well-deserved celebrations have ended.
And it’s some pretty good advice for anyone who currently holds public office.
• Rubber-chicken dinners and galas with haughty awards, ego massage and goofy accolades are not important. Coffee with a concerned constituent is.
• Humility and a true willingness to admit honest mistakes — followed by correcting those mistakes — is omnipotent to winning and keeping the public’s trust.
• The loudest person in the room is not always right. They are not always wrong, either.
• Your constituents understand that you are human, but they expect and deserve a commitment to the ultimate in ethical, moral and honorable behavior that respects human dignity, obeys the rule of law, and brings honor to public service.
• Citizens demand that elected officials hold themselves, and others in positions of power, accountable for their actions, because anything less weakens the system.
• It is important to support career civil servants, and to listen to their suggestions and recommendations for improving service delivery — never use them as pawns or scapegoats for political expediency.
• Demand a high standard of excellence from the city manager or county manager. He or she holds more of the cards than any one elected official. Give this executive the courtesy of frequent, fair and objective performance reviews so they know where they stand, what you expect, and how they can improve.
• In public service, courage is defined as the mental, moral and physical strength that sees us through challenges and allows us to do the right thing, for the right reason. Lead by personal example as you make the difficult decisions that touch the lives and livelihoods of those you serve under incredible internal and external pressures.
• Find that inner courage. Hold firm to your sacred oath of office and core values, and take pride in the fact that your neighbors, staff and fellow citizens have put their confidence in your ability to lead — and your vision for our collective future.
And never lose sight of the impermanence of power and position.
“All glory is fleeting … .” That is the reality of politics.
— Barker writes a blog, usually about local government, at barkersview.org. A retired police chief, Barker says he lives as a semi-recluse in an arrogantly shabby home in coastal Central Florida, with his wife and two dogs. This is excerpted from his blog, lightly edited (Barker swears a lot), and is reprinted with his permission.