The Best of Andy Rooney

(This classic Andy Rooney column was originally published April 24, 2004.)

It's good fun to criticize our politicians and we all do a lot of that. It's hard not to, but I often feel sorry for them. Most people who are successful in any field have one special talent for doing something well. They aren't successful because of their overall ability. A politician can't specialize like that. He or she (see footnote) has to know a lot about everything.

Believing that you're smart enough to take a public job that involves making decisions that will influence thousands or even millions of lives takes more chutzpah than most of us have. Imagine really thinking that you're smart enough to be President of the United States. Or even a congressman. Such jobs take men and women with self-confidence and I'm glad we have so many of them to lead wimps like us.

Of course, we're always being disappointed by our politicians, even the ones we voted for or plan to vote for. Sooner or later, our favorite says something we hate. The trouble is, politicians have to do and say some terrible things to get elected. They have to say things they don't believe and do things they don't like doing. They even have to pretend they like some things. Shaking hands with 2,000 enthusiastic jerks every day must be a pain. We practically force them to lie to us, or at least force them to be evasive and then accuse them of not being honest.

Plain dealing is impossible for a politician. How do you come out clearly and unequivocally for or against abortion, tax cuts, or school prayer without alienating about half of the people who were inclined to vote for you? The politician has to find a way to avoid saying what he really thinks as often as possible. I'd hate to be a politician and have to announce publicly every opinion I've ever had. I'd get run out of the country.

Most of us are puzzled and unsure about major issues. We can be persuaded in one direction or the other. A politician doesn't have the luxury of rethinking something, hedging, or changing his mind. Voters, on the other hand, can usually avoid taking any firm position. We aren't dead sure what we think.

The philosophy of democracy assumes that the people of a country know what they want and make intelligent decisions about whom they vote for to get it. The trouble is that we're too evenly divided, and if one group gets what it wants in the next election, it's certain that almost half of us will be dissatisfied. It won't be "the will of the people," but only the will of about half the people. This makes democracy seem less like a perfect system. It's just that there isn't any other as good.

I'm just glad we have people who want to do what politicians do. I certainly wouldn't want to do it -- and I doubt you would, either. They don't get into politics for usual reasons. It's not for the money. A few semi-honest mayors around the country have used the office to get rich. From time to time a congressman gets more help than he should take from a business, but for the most part, the politician's aphrodisiac is power, not money.

Footnote: Every time I write, I'm faced with the problem of those damn third person pronouns "he" or "she." We are in desperate need of a gender-neutral word that would include men and women. You used to be able to use the masculine "he" as if it was universal. That's no longer acceptable, but I'm not willing to write "he" or "she" every time it seems necessary.

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