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Vantage Point

Honor in Politics

People who make a living out of politics need to remember that their adversaries are not their enemies.

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Over-the-top: An anti-Obama placard.(JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Taking the romantic and rhythmic train ride through the Spanish countryside from Avila to Madrid, I was contemplating the speech I was scheduled to give the next day on campaigns and communications to an international gathering of political operatives. I had taken a walk on the stone streets of the ancient walled city of Avila, a place of journey for pilgrims over the centuries, and it had got me to thinking about what I could say to the strategists and tacticians gathered from 27 countries. A quote from the 16th-century mystic St. Teresa of Avila kept ringing in my head: “The feeling remains that God is on the journey, too.”

Having worked for both Republicans and Democrats during the past 30 years, I have come to realize that the vast majority of people who work in politics, including those in the media, are doing it for the right reasons and with noble intentions. They believe in what they are doing, and they believe that their work will help people. They aren’t involved primarily because of a paycheck or fame or ill will, but because they believe that they are making a difference and that their community, state, or country will be better off if they are successful. They feel that their efforts will help society get closer to fulfilling its promise and to the truth.

 

As I shared meals, or drinks, or just conversation with the campaign strategists from around the world, I realized the same is true for these people as well. Whether representing the Left or Right in Brazil or Bulgaria, Canada or Croatia, nearly all of them talked about how much their hearts and souls were in their work. And how they came to the profession out of a desire to serve the broader good.

When it came time for my address, I decided to emphasize that politics would be much better served if we approached it in the same manner that we approach life and our relationships—that we should communicate in campaigns in the same way that we operate in our personal lives.

Most of us don’t question the intentions of a neighbor who disagrees with us on an issue. Most of us remain friends with a family member even if we argue about politics or religion or the choice of a restaurant. Most of us conduct our daily existence in a way that when our work is done, we can look at ourselves in the mirror at night and know that we did our best. We also know that we can embrace the person with whom we had argued, regardless of who had won.

 

As a campaign strategist, have I always done this well? Not always. But one of the things I count as a great accomplishment is the lifelong friendships that I have developed with professionals from opposing campaigns—the people I was trying my best to beat. Although the fights were tough and the stakes were often great, when Election Day came and went I could embrace my friends on the other side and know that regardless of which one of us won, we were in politics for the right reasons.

I learned at the international conference that political professionals from around the globe share a desire to get past the bitterness of the current politics and establish a sense of community that we can all feel a part of—a desire we have seen surface in the United States in recent years. This yearning for a better politics, a more compassionate conversation, and a deeper sense of belonging exists not only in St. Petersburg, Fla., but also in St. Petersburg, Russia, and in Independence, Mo., and Istanbul, Turkey.

As all of us begin to immerse ourselves in the 2012 presidential election campaigns—be it the unpredictable Republican nominating process or the intense and expensive general-election contest to come—maybe we can communicate in a manner that reflects how we carry ourselves in our lives outside of politics. We each have a path we are called to take, and a profession we are called to honor, even if it involves being on the opposite side of a good friend. It might be helpful to remember, as St. Teresa said, that no matter the journey, God is along for the ride—and that we don’t have exclusive rights to our passenger.

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This article appears in the June 11, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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