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Excerpt: 'In Praise of Public Life'

By Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman
Simon & Schuster
Nonfiction/Political Science-General
176 pages

In a vigorous defense of public life, Senator Joseph Lieberman, one of the most articulate and respected of our politicians, defines the duty, the honor and the privilege of public life in the face of Americans' perennial cynicism about it.

Americans have always been suspicious of government and have misunderstood and mistrusted those in public life. This attitude is even more prevalent as the boundaries that once separated public and private have fallen. Lieberman argues that some of the public's mistrust is based on a misconception of what public life is and why we need it. He then describes that life as he has lived it over the last three decades -- with all its purpose, privileges, pressures and pleasures.

Drawing widely from his own experience as a politician and his pride in public service, Lieberman makes a passionate, hopeful argument for the value of public life -- its place and necessity in our democracy and our need for more Americans to embrace it if we are to sustain our self-government.

Prologue

There are times, now and then, when my mother will read something critical about me in the newspapers, or she'll hear the fatigue in my voice during an evening phone conversation from my home in Washington to hers in Connecticut.

"Sweetheart," she'll say, in that voice I've heard all my life, "do you really need this?"

I laugh and answer, "Yes, Mom, I really do need this. I love it."

Of course, my mother knows what my answer will be, and I know she is proud of it. But her question makes a good point. There's a lot you have to learn to live with if you are going to hold elected office and live a public life in America today. Privacy, for example, is difficult to maintain, for you and your family. Criticism, when you receive it (and you can count on receiving it, from political adversaries, if not from the man on the street or from the media), is sometimes searing, frequently personal and almost always public. The media -- newspapers, television, radio -- shadow public officials' every move, analyzing their words and deeds, scrutinizing their intentions, second-guessing their decisions and questioning their intelligence, not to mention their integrity. In this age of around-the-clock live cable television news, radio and the Internet, those judgments are instantly and constantly transmitted, day in and day out, to tens of millions of viewers, listeners and readers, often without adhering to the traditional journalistic standards of accuracy and reliability.

It's hard to imagine a career -- other than professional athletics or entertainment -- where one's job performance is as visible, as studied and as magnified as a politician's. Like an athlete and an entertainer, an elected official today must face questions not only about how he is doing his job but how he is living his life -- and how he has lived his life. Besides being expected to account for almost any aspect of his present existence, he may well be asked to explain things he did years or even decades ago, long before he entered public life. Unlike an athlete and an entertainer, whose wayward behavior -- past or present -- can often embellish a career, a politician's words and deeds are typically held to the highest of standards, and he is, in the most acutely direct sense, answerable for those actions -- answerable to the public. They are the people who hired him. They are the people who can fire him. And they are also the people to whom he must constantly turn for not only approval but also tangible support.

Joseph Lieberman
Senator Joseph Lieberman, Gore's choice to become the Democratic vice presidential nominee, argues for the value of public service in "In Praise of Public Life"  

If you are going to live the life of a politician, you have to learn to ask people for support -- political and financial. That is not always easy or comfortable. You have to ask them as well for their votes. And you have to be aware that they might want something in return that you may not be able to give them, which they may not understand, and which they may therefore resent.

As a politician, you will also have to endure the disdain of those who consider your profession little more than bartering political favors for money and votes. You may well be sullied by the fight for election, drawn into the kind of negative campaigning and mudslinging that leaves both winners and losers dirtied and degraded in the public eye. Upon entering office, you will step into yet another arena that has turned uglier than ever before, this one infected with the partisan infighting of political parties that are polarized today to a degree unequaled in our nation's recent history.

So why in the world would anyone in his or her right mind choose such a life?

Well, I'm afraid fewer and fewer people are choosing it. This is bad for our democracy, and it is also the reason I am writing this book.

I had lunch not long ago with a group of interns in my Senate office. I try to do this each summer, at the end of these students' time with us, as a way of thanking them and saying goodbye before they head back to their colleges. This particular group came from a broad mix of campuses, including UCLA, the University of Virginia, Trinity College, the College of William and Mary, and my alma mater, Yale. Toward the end of the meal, I asked how many of them were thinking about pursuing a career in public life after graduation. Most were, which was not surprising. They probably wouldn't have spent their summer on Capitol Hill if they weren't. But when I went further and asked how many of their friends and classmates were considering a career in politics, they said not many, if any. I asked why.

"They think," said one, "that politics is just a lot of noise and not much is accomplished."

"It's too partisan," said another. "And too nasty. And politicians don't have any privacy."

"Too often," said a third, "it seems like politicians spend most of their time raising money -- big money."

Meanness. Big money. Partisanship.

Not much accomplished.

The reasons these students ticked off for their classmates' aversion mirror the disdain most of the nation feels right now for politics and for politicians.

That is not surprising when you think about the sordid spectacle that culminated in the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, the partisan bickering and bloodletting unleashed throughout that national crisis, the aura of zealous pursuit infecting the independent counsel's investigation, the media's seemingly unquenchable thirst for scandal, the ascent of a character like Larry Flynt as a moral arbiter and influence on this momentous process. In the wake of such a gaudy and demeaning saga at what is supposed to be the highest, most dignified level of our society, is it any wonder that Americans by the millions simply turned away in disappointment and disgust?

Voter turnout for the November 1998 elections, which followed the President's nationally televised "confession" of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and the subsequent beginning of the impeachment proceedings in the House, was 36 percent -- the lowest for any midterm election since 1942. Think about that number. For every eligible American who voted, there were two who did not.

That disheartening statistic tells us that fewer Americans than ever can muster enough trust in their government to conclude that it is worth voting. This cynicism has infected the American people to the point where a disturbingly large number of them no longer believe that public life in our democracy -- the very core of our system of representative government -- is worthy of their respect, let alone their involvement. In a survey taken in 1964, three out of four Americans said they believed in their government and trusted their elected leaders. A similar survey taken last year found that figure had dropped to one in four.

One in four.

Public confidence did not plummet overnight. It did not begin with Bill Clinton. Politicians and government have endured suspicion and a certain degree of scorn since the birth of this nation. This skepticism on the part of the American public is a grand tradition, as deeply rooted in our society as the spirit of freedom and independence and limited government. What is new, however, is the degree to which that suspicion and scorn have grown in the past thirty years. These three decades have seen an unprecedented parade of betrayals of the public's trust, from the deception that lay behind the Vietnam War, to the shock of the Watergate scandal, to Iran-Contra and the partisan political and cultural warfare that erupted in the 1980s, to the personal attacks on public figures like Judge Robert Bork, Speaker Jim Wright and Justice Clarence Thomas, to the unseemly revelations of campaign finance wrongdoing in 1996, and on through the earthshaking impeachment experience of 1998 and 1999.

That's an awful beating for a political system to take over the course of just one generation. And it has brought us to a low point in the American people's relationship with their government. They are experiencing a real crisis of confidence not just in politicians but in the value of public life in our democracy, which troubles me deeply because I've lived that life for those same past thirty years -- virtually my entire adulthood -- and I think it deserves better. I've experienced its challenges and satisfactions, and I've felt its pitfalls and pressures. I know the strains it can put on a personal life -- on a marriage and a family. I've felt the probing eye of the media push further and further into public officials' offices and homes. I've seen the role of money in political campaigns grow more uncontrollable and corrosive year after year. I've felt the viciousness of partisanship infect the process of politics to the point where reasonable collaboration becomes almost impossible. I've watched good men go bad, their judgment clouded by zealotry and ideological obligation, by ego and ambition, by the dark side of power and prestige, or simply and sadly by desires that become needs.

The American people have watched these things as well. Every day, on the pages of hundreds of newspapers and magazines, they read ringside accounts of the latest political battle, or corruption, or scandal. Every day they watch the constant flow of television news broadcasts. They listen to analysts on radio talk shows dissect and diagnose the political news of the day with each other, with the audience and with the politicians themselves. They scour the Internet. And for a firsthand look at government doing its business, they watch C-SPAN.

With such a wealth of access and input, it's easy to feel that we've got more than enough information about public life and those who are living it to make conclusive judgments about the quality, the value and even the future of that life.

But, with all that Americans are shown of public life through the media, there is more that they do not see that is good and hopeful. There are aspects of life in goverment that are not conveyed by today's cameras and tape recorders that are fascinating, encouraging and even enjoyable. Without understanding these fuller dimensions of this life, it is hard to honestly and accurately judge it, or to prescribe solutions for what ails it. Communicating that more complete picture of public life is exactly what I want to do in this book.

Last year a group called the Council for Excellence in Government sponsored a poll that found that two out of three Americans feel "disconnected" from their government, that more than half our society does not believe the government is any longer "of, by and for the people," and that the segment of our society that feels most estranged from government is the young, ages eighteen to thirty-four.

This is what those interns were trying to tell me at lunch, and this is what chills me most -- the prospect of the best of the next generation turning their backs on politics and public life. It is always, of course, the young upon whom the future direction of our society depends, and right now that generation is abandoning its government.

Not that they don't care about society. In fact, while those who are now coming of age in America may feel disconnected from government, they do feel a strong connection to their community and its needs, stronger in some ways than the generations that preceded them in the 1970s and 1980s. While they may be shunning political careers, they are turning in growing numbers toward public service -- community groups, advocacy groups -- and volunteer work. A recent national study of college freshmen shows that more students are choosing schoolteaching as a career than at any time in the past quarter century. Why? Certainly not for ego or pay. No, the reason cited repeatedly by the students in this survey was their desire to "make a difference."

Of course, we should celebrate the fact that these young people are choosing to turn their talent, vision and hope not toward just themselves -- as seemed to be prevalent in the '80s -- but toward one another, toward their community, toward those in need.

But it also brings me back to the question I asked at the beginning: Why in the world would anyone, including the next generation, choose to live the public life of a politician today? Why, to repeat my mother's question, do I really need this?

The answer, I would suggest, is the same one those future teachers gave: to make a difference. For all that is wrong with our system of government, and there is much that needs repair, it remains a place where one can truly and uniquely make a difference, where one can help improve our country and even, occasionally, the world.

We need to convince more young people who want to make a difference to enter public life. For the American experiment in self-government to remain vital, we need more people to serve in that government and to live public lives. If we didn't have politicians, we would have to invent them. We can turn our backs and abandon them in disgust, thereby ensuring that the government does indeed belong to the privileged and powerful few. Or we can conclude that public life is a worthy pursuit, that it can be an honorable, constructive, satisfying, enjoyable career, deserving of the best among us.

We need to nurture this belief, especially in the generation now coming of age. We need to restore the trust and faith that have been so badly damaged. If this sounds as if I'm talking about a personal or even a marital relationship, it should. Trust is the foundation of any relationship, and the first step toward repairing the people's damaged trust in their government is to establish a foundation of clarity, honesty and understanding.

It is toward that end that I want to share some of what I've come to know and understand about public life over the course of my own career. I'd like to give a sense of what it looks and feels like, from the inside, and why I'm so glad I chose it. This book is not an autobiography. But it is personal, because I want to illustrate through my own experiences the nature, complexities, possibilities and satisfactions of public life. I will describe how my public life has affected my private life and vice versa, and ask what lines can be drawn between the two.

I'm still living that life, still learning, still trying to figure out how to deal with and repair the problems that persist. I will take a look at some of those problems in the pages that follow. I will also describe what I believe is right and good about this life, which, in my opinion, far outweighs the bad, because this is a book with a point of view. I write in praise of public life for all who care about the future of our democracy.

In 1976, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Jimmy Carter came up with a wonderful one-line insight about the relationship between the public and its elected leadership: The American people, he said, deserve a government as good as they are.

Nearly a quarter century later, the American people still deserve as much, and they still do not have it. But my life in politics tells me they are closer to it than they think.

I hope, after reading these pages, that you will agree and decide to do something yourself to make it even better.

Copyright (c) 2000 by Joseph I. Lieberman



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