By Lee H. Hamilton
Not long ago I was asked by several students for my thoughts on the outstanding characteristics of good politicians. What follows is my response:
Good politicians are patriots, who are committed to strive for a more perfect union.
They understand that they cannot accomplish much by themselves. There are scores of people, officials, groups, and institutions to contact in order to move forward. They need help, and lots of it.
Good politicians persevere. Many of my former colleagues ran for office multiple times before being elected. Once elected they understood the unrelenting efforts required to accomplish objectives. In politics, it is rare indeed to achieve any worthy objective on the first try.
Good politicians know that setbacks and frustrations are part of the process.
High energy is a prerequisite in politics where success requires dealing with a broad range of issues, with many kinds of people, over long periods of time. Success demands long hours, a bundle of energy, and the ability to pick yourself up after a defeat and plow ahead.
Good politicians accept that in our system they are accountable. They take responsibility for the decisions they make, even when they don’t turn out well. The buck stops with them.
They understand they do not get to choose their colleagues, the issues they must address, or the environment in which they work. The American people do that, and they choose their political leaders from all walks of life. Our leaders do not need an impressive pedigree, a well-connected family, or wealth—although each of these things can ease the path. By and large, the path to power and influence is open and accessible.
Usually, successful politicians align with a political party, which provides a base of support for their efforts. They recognize the advantage, even the necessity, of bipartisanship and working across party lines.
They recognize that Americans esteem civility, and do not like rude behavior from their politicians. Most Americans put integrity at the top of their list of attributes they want in those persons who represent them. They look for authenticity, likeability, and competence. They are not shy about pushing for the issues that really count for them—like affordable health care, good education for all, a strong national defense, free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, and free media.
Outsiders as well as insiders can rise to the highest offices. Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama were outsiders while George W. Bush was the consummate insider, being the son of a president.
Over and over again I am impressed by how our leaders arise from the grass roots: they are ordinary citizens who step up to meet the challenges in their local communities. And so, you find them working to strengthen the schools, tackling a local drug problem, or joining to clean up lakes and streams. They don’t always succeed, but they take responsibility to make things better.
Nearly 400 years ago, Massachusetts Bay Colony leader John Winthrop said the Puritan settlement would be a “city upon a hill,” a model for others to emulate. While we often fall short of our ideals—as in enslavement of Africans and the genocide against Native Americans—that metaphor resonates.
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government and was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.