Beware judging politicians by their covers

Often, I read something and say to myself, “I wish I had said or written that.”

For example, I recently noted a letter to the editor in the National Post that expressed my own thoughts about what qualifications are important for politicians.

Douglas Cornish of Ottawa shares my belief that it is unfortunate that our station in life---what we do—too often trumps what we are when we judge each other and when we choose our political leaders.

He draws attention to the fact that Green Party interim leader Amita Kuttner is an astrophysicist. So what, says Cornish.

“Julie Payette was a rocket scientist, but she proved to be nothing but a train wreck….Politics is not about brain surgery or rocket science—it’s about character, strategy, public service, and trying to help others, rather than simply furthering one’s own agenda.

“Politics is also mainly ingrained; it can’t be learned in school. Having more degrees than a thermometer doesn’t necessarily mean success.”

Hear,hear, Mr. Cornish.

I’ve spent much of my life following politics and I’ve often marveled at how some people are so darned smart and well educated but so lacking in common sense, sound judgment and communications skills.

And some with much less formal education can be so well informed by their experiences in life, wise in practical ways of problem solving and just plain good at listening and understanding people and their needs.

As things stand, would-be politicians with big names and big jobs have a decided advantage over their lower profile competition.

Some voters are more interested in pedigree than others. Strategic thinkers will argue that the high rollers are better candidates because they are more apt to be appointed to cabinet posts and better positioned to deliver benefits to their ridings.

That strategy breaks down when high profilers get elected to parliaments but find themselves in opposition or government back rows, bored and twiddling their thumbs.

Truth to tell, I believe our elected bodies---from school boards to parliaments---should reflect and understand the people who elect them. Democracy is under pressure these days as many have lost faith in our leaders and public institutions. Too many people feel alienated because it seems no one is listening to them.

The pandemic has reminded us how important it is to have leaders—both elected and appointed-- who understand an issue and can explain it to the public in an honest and credible manner. Physician-scientist Dr. Tony Fauci became an international hero not only for his expertise but for his candor and calm in telling the story of Covid-19.

It didn’t hurt that he also had the guts to stand up to his bullying and lying boss, Donald Trump.

I’ve made my own list of political figures who brought sharp brains and big hearts to their job.

John A. Macdonald’s personal life was besotted with tragedies. In winter I think of him making the endless journeys between Kingston and Ottawa and huddled by the fire charting a future for this young country. Winston Churchill was to the manor born but enjoyed simple pleasures and knew how to inspire people to put their lives on the line to save the world from tyranny. U.S. Senator John McCain’s warped arms spoke to the pain endured during six years in a prisoner of war camp and in my mind it is one of the tragedies of history that he never became President. His passion and patriotism were simply unassailable. Angela Merkel lived a humble life and as Chancellor of Germany set a high standard, was regarded as the world’s most powerful woman and was admired around the globe for her leadership abilities.

In much less noteworthy terms, I think of the characters I knew during my days at Queen’s Park.

One of the most memorable was a rural MPP who was sometimes the target of humour for his homespun style and practical approach to sophisticated issues.

(“Me and the Premier brung you this cheque” was just one of his popular pronouncements that became political lore.)

He was a big man with hands like catcher’s mitts and he knew how to win public trust and confidence with straight talk.

He was a breath of fresh air at cabinet meetings when he reminded his colleagues that their message had to resonate with the ordinary voter. He knew when an impending idea wouldn’t fly back home and he wasn’t reluctant to say so.

I often wonder whether there are any of his ilk who sit around the cabinet tables in Toronto and Ottawa today.

In our world of celebrity politics, we increasingly see the stars of sports, entertainment, media and famous families moving into political leadership (often with little or no experience in practicing the art of the possible.)

Whereas political success was once determined by who you knew and what status you had attained in your community, more and more we vote for faces and names we recognize from the mass media.

In Ottawa today, most of the influential people in cabinet are women and men who have personal ties to the Prime Minister. You can’t fault the PM for appointing people he can trust but cabinet making is starting to resemble a fan club.

There is no question that backbench MPPs and MPs have less and less influence in being their voters’ voice in Toronto and Ottawa as power is increasingly concentrated within a small group of unelected people around the government leader.

I’m concerned with the practice of political candidates being appointed by the higher echelons of political parties instead of the traditional process of relying on members of local riding associations to recruit and elect their candidates.

This new practice is one way of making sure the candidates are well vetted but it’s yet another step away from grassroots involvement in the political process.

Many of us are influenced by status. We had a dear friend who was obsessed with members of the medical profession. This woman believed that doctors walk on water and occupy the pinnacle of the social ladder.

When a surgeon moved into her neighbourhood she was quick to invite him and his wife to dinner.

Our hostess spared no expense, was an excellent cook and proudly presented a prime cut of beef to the dinner table and invited the esteemed doc to carve.

He graciously accepted the invitation, undertook the task with gusto and within minutes the roast lay in ruin.

Turns out he was a genius with a scalpel in the operating room---but a rookie with a carving knife at the dining room table.

There is a lesson to be learned here.

There is the old expression that suggests we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

Those with hard-won credentials and distinction in various fields should ask themselves if they are truly suited for politics. What motivates them? What do they hope to accomplish? Can they withstand the heat of the political kitchen?

And, as voters, we should ask ourselves if these experts understand critical issues and are the kind of leaders who can run the country and make decisions that affect the stability, health and welfare of our daily lives and those of our families.

Here in Ontario, we get to answer those questions in the coming months with a provincial election slated for next June.

Look ‘em over carefully…they have tremendous power over our lives and our future.

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