March 10th, 2012
07:00 AM ET

Letters to the President #1146: 'Why we don't trust our leaders, part 2'

Reporter's Note: I’m writing to the president this weekend about a key problem in politics.

Dear Mr. President,

I am continuing on my theme from yesterday (i.e. Why don’t we trust our elected leaders?) and today I am addressing another key reason: We don’t trust them, because they say what we want to hear.

You know it is true. It is practically a rule of politics and always has been. Instead of asking “How can I help this constituency?” too many office seekers seem instead to be asking, “How can this constituency help me?” So they twist their opinions, ideas, and words into slogans to win over voters as surely as a used car salesman glosses over a vehicle’s defects and embellishes its attributes. It can be captured in a simple phrase: They don’t seek to be the best leaders; they seek to give the impression that they are the best. And the difference between those two positions is profound. One is about integrity, honesty, and genuine public service. The other is about manipulation, misrepresentation, and self service; telling us what we want to hear, so they can get what they want to get.

Oh sure, there can be crossovers. Some people who really want to win public office are also really the right people for those jobs. But in my experience, not so often. Too many of the people who seek the top jobs in the public sector are like those who do so in the private sector. Often they are driven first and foremost by their own desire for power. They want influence. They want respect. They want to attend big, important dinners with other big, important people. And while they may also want, in a vague way, to serve the public, far too often that is a distant 2nd or 3rd or 4th on their list of priorities.

Imagine a parallel universe. In this strange land, when people run for public office they do not conduct polls about what the public likes in a leader. They don’t test their messages and tie colors with focus groups. They don’t study endless charts and graphs about how they can triangulate certain voting blocks.

No, they simply stand up and talk about the issues of the day. Each candidate says what he or she really believes, and explains his or her ideas for solving problems. When that is done, voters decide who should get the job. The elected leaders are not twisted into knots trying to reconcile false promises with reality because they never made such promises in the first place.

I realize such a scenario will never be seen in politics in this country. But the degree to which both parties have turned so far away from that has turned the process of being elected into, not a calling, but a racket. It is yet another basic reason why we don’t trust our leaders.

More tomorrow.