The first lie most politicians invariably tell is to say they are not politicians. I don’t know how they say this with a straight face, but they do. Maybe they even believe they are not politicians, which leads to one of two potential conclusions: They are lying or they lack a basic understanding of the American Democratic system.

Here the non-politician is seeking political contributions by raising money from friends and relations, attempting to gain endorsements from well-known political office-holders, hiring political advisors and operatives, attempting (often successfully) to manipulate the media into portraying them as non-politicians, and performing the scores of other chores required of people running for political office.

Yet, they will look you in the face and say, “I’m not a politician.” They will even make their non-politicalness into a political slogan, bumper sticker, or yard sign. It’ll say something like, “Truth, not Politics, Vote (fill in the blank).” They’ll attempt to convince that they can, unlike their opponent, participate in politics without being a politician. It’s sort of like maintaining your virginity after having sex.

Some political office-holders can make being a non-politician into a political career. Ronald Reagan was probably the most skilled non-political politician of the last century.

First, he was always pictured as a political outsider who didn’t believe in big government and budget deficits, yet he poured billions of dollars into social programs and ran up a historic deficit. Then he could sit down with the politician’s politician, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, and work out a federal budget. There never was any doubt O’Neill was a politician, and so far as I can tell he never attempted to tell anyone he wasn’t a politician. The difference between Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan was O’Neill admitted to being a politician and took pride in being a good one.
Because of the alliterative cadence, a lot of non-politicians like to say that unlike their opponents, they don’t “participate in petty politics.” Besides sounding like a petty and political thing to say, I have no idea what this means.

Does it mean they only participate in non-petty politics or they are a major politician and not a petty one? Are they being petty by calling their opponent a petty politician?

Besides the absurdity of arguments around what constitutes petty politics, what really amazes me is how the public falls for the arguments. Nobody wants to vote for a politician even though they are voting in a political election for someone who is running a political campaign to hold a political office.

No. Everyone knows politics is a smarmy business so the electorate wants a non-politician unstained by politics. They seem to want someone who has no idea what he or she is doing, and they usually end up with a walking cliché.

I’ve met more than a few people in politics in my day, including school board members, mayors, county supervisors, city councilmen, governors, congressmen, senators, a future U.S. Vice President, and a foreign Vice President. Very few would admit to being politicians. The smartest one, Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh, loved being a politician, and he was a great one. When I met him he was California State Treasurer and sharp as ever.

“I believe in the tangled thicket theory of politics,” he told me in the early ’80’s. “Politics is a valley. You can take the high road and stay above the valley and never get dirty, but you’ll never get anything done.” He paused a bit and yawned, “Or you can go to the bottom of the valley, which is muddy. You might get something done, but you end up filthy.” He grimaced when he said this, as though he was being morally stained. But he continued.

“Or you can take a middle pathway (halfway from the ridge and muddy bottom), what I call the tangled thicket. You have to be careful where you step. You have to not get caught in the thicket because you can fall into the muck. But this is where things get done.”

According to Unruh, a skilled politician gets things done in the thicket. Often, though, they slip into the muck, sometimes from the ridge and sometimes from the tangled thicket.

And Unruh, who proudly admitted to being a politician, and a good one, got a lot done. The “Unruh Civil Rights Act”, expanding the University of California, and the “Open Housing Act”, all were part of his handiwork. He did it by understanding he was a politician who worked within a political system.

Today’s politicians should learn from him. Maybe then we’ll get something done.


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