Politicians: What makes them tick?

by Steve Meissner

Lord Acton quoteHave you ever wondered what makes politicians tick? What motivates them to put on red plastic noses and perform like slapstick clowns?

Is it money? Did you know that members of the Arizona Legislature earn just $24,000 a year? (OK, some can add another $10,000-$15,000 to that if they’re from outside Maricopa County, but then they need to rent an apartment.) Members of Congress do better, of course – but have you checked out housing prices in Washington, D.C. lately?

Is it fame? Maybe. On the other hand, how would you like every mistake you’ve ever made dragged over the coals for public scrutiny? Isn’t there something from your adolescence – or some other phase of your life – that would be mortifying if it became public knowledge?

Is it power? Politicians seem all-powerful, but when it comes right down to it, they’re held hostage by an unending tug-of-war between polar opposites.

Just look at the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact that was recently up for Congressional review. A conservative member of Congress had to choose between voting in support of the Obama administration (shudder) or conservative activists who said it would “undermine American sovereignty” by allowing an international tribunal to overrule U.S. law. For progressives, the choice was between supporting their President and siding with labor unions that say the deal would send jobs overseas.

Whatever his/her party, either choice was likely to make a few enemies and cost him/her some votes.

So much for being all powerful.

People, love to mock Congress as a do-nothing body: it basically has a three-day workweek and spends most of its time out of session. However, the time spent on floor action is just the tip of the iceberg. Most representatives and senators spend the bulk of their time begging for money, meeting with the lobbyists and special interests that will contribute the huge wads of cash that will either fund their re-elections – or the campaigns of their opponents. And in between all that, they have to meet with constituents. Not to mention that if they’re in the Arizona Legislature or the U.S. House, they must gear up for reelection every two years.

So why do it?Aesop quote

Because they have to.

“The only cure for politics,” the late, great Rep. Morris K. Udall once said, “is embalming fluid.”

Holding public office is a drug, and once elected, people tend to become hopelessly addicted.

They’re treated like someone important, and that’s heady stuff. In my first book, The Cactus Caucus, I describe the free lunches that most legislators enjoy. I also try to describe the petty things about our elected officials. My character ends up wearing some fancy suits that someone else purchased. He sleeps in an apartment rent-free. He eats free meals – free to him, at any rate. Some of my examples might be hotly disputed by my politician friends, but they are, without question, in the political reality ballpark.

Did you know, for example, that when a member of Congress crosses the street on Capitol Hill, the cops stop traffic? Get a ticket? No problem. Arizona legislators have “immunity from arrest” while in session. For many of them, that means no traffic tickets. When I shared an apartment with a top Congressional staffer in Washington, D.C., he drove my car. I once found my glove box stuffed with tickets he received. Apparently he got them all dismissed.

If you visit any Congressional office building, you’ll see a “Members Only” sign on most of the elevators. That means if you ain’t a member (or a Congressional staffer), you can’t ride that elevator if the sign is lit.

All of that is intoxicating. And, of course, that’s only the beginning. There are also tickets to all kinds of events. Free food abounds. Junkets are for the taking. Lobbyists compete for the opportunity to buy you dinner. Yeah, there’s a lot to like about being an elected official.

But for the most part, holding elected office seems to be a drug, an addiction that cannot be cured. That’s why we have 80-year-olds running for yet another term.

Now I can’t speak from personal experience about how it feels to be an elected officeholder. I couldn’t win elective surgery if it were put to a vote. But I’ve spent my life among politicians. I’ve written about them as a journalist. I’ve worked as a bureaucrat and volunteered for countless campaigns at the local, state, and federal levels. And, to be honest, I’ve been screwed by more politicians than a D.C. hooker.

Here’s my conclusion about them: they suffer from massive but fragile egos. They have an unquenchable need to be liked, to be celebrated, maybe even to be worshiped.

To be successful politicians must possess certain intangibles. Some intelligence would be nice, though many politicians I’ve known are not deep thinkers. Some form of street smarts can be useful. A college degree usually is required, but not always – just ask Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker or Harry Truman, neither of whom finished college.

They do need to be charming. They need to be persuasive. But most of all, they have to be obsessive about winning. No matter the office, our political system only rewards those who will sacrifice everything – friends, family, personal lives – on the altar of success. Politicians don’t have true friends. They have allies – and allies come and go. They try to avoid making enemies. Politicians often become timid because of this. They want to be everything to everybody. If there’s a risk to be taken, they do so reluctantly.

They have massive egos, ravenous beasts that are never sated, only mollified temporarily. They want to be loved. They have to be loved, and they have to have that love validated repeatedly.

Macchiaveli quoteSo unless you’re an insecure, obsessive-compulsive egotist, stay out of politics. It ain’t your game.

For more than three decades, Steve Meissner has watched the Arizona political scene Steve Meissneras a journalist, lobbyist, bureaucrat, and even as a legislative staff member. For nearly 20 years he was a reporter, editor and columnist for several publications, including the
Cleveland Plain Dealer and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Most of his newspaper career was spent at the Arizona Daily Star, where he was a reporter, editor and columnist, and taught journalism for more than a decade as an adjunct at the University of Arizona and Pima Community College. He is the author of Cactus Caucus, a novel about Arizona’s legislative politics, which is available in Kindle format. He is currently working on a second novel about Arizona politics.

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