A Strange New Respect

Nobel-prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman says:

Taking even a cursory stock of current events, I am driven to the ultimately wise advice of my Columbia mentor, I.I. Rabi, who, in our many corridor bull sessions, urged his students to run for public office and get elected. He insisted that to be an advisor (he was an advisor to Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, later to Eisenhower and to the AEC) was ultimately an exercise in futility and that the power belonged to those who are elected. Then, we thought the old man was bonkers. But today…

I agree with Dr. Lederman that it would be better if more elected officials were scientists. Not to mention artists, musicians, authors, farmers, plumbers, car mechanics, morticians and sanitation workers. And he’s right: to be an advisor is like being a court eunuch.

But here’s the problem. To become an elected official, you actually have to get elected.  You will not, like George Arthur Rose, bolt out of the blue be made some sort of secular pontiff and be given the keys of the kingdom to loose or bind whatsoever on earth.

You’ll have to put together an organization of adherents. Draft positions. Raise money (not from grant proposals). Travel and talk to people who aren’t interested in listening to you but you have to convince to vote for you. Be nice to the rude and indifferent. Listen to inconsequential gripes. Slap backs and eat chicken and peas. To win electoral office, it has to be almost a full-time job.

Once in office, you have to learn about how to make a difference, the nuts and bolts of policy making and how to serve your constituents. And what’s worse is: you don’t have tenure! Your actions have consequences! You can lose your job. Sometimes unfairly!\

You went to college, took a major in one of the sciences. You then went to graduate school, started research with a good professor who could give you a recommendation with the weight needed to get a good position afterwards and scrimped and sacrificed. Afterwards you may have taken one or more postdoctoral positions, honing your skills for little pay or recognition. If you went into industry, you labored mightily to make a contribution to your company. Or you may have gone into academia and labored mightily to get tenure.

Because you were ambitious to be successful in your field, you busted your butt to achieve your goal. Do you presume that those who are ambitious to be successful in politics didn’t bust their butts as well? While you were doing all that, your representative or senator may have gone to law school and went into a practice where they made contacts or served on campaigns, worked as interns or administrative staff, learned the ropes of how to raise money or managing legislation.

It’s the conceit of intellectuals and those with intellectual pretensions to consider those elected to office mental pygmies compared to themselves and that all this political stuff is below them. I was struck in reading Allen Drury’s A Senate Journal (about which more anon) that the most frequent adjective he uses to describe senators and representatives is “shrewd.” Intelligence is necessary to some extent but even more so the ability, in the words of George Washington Plunkett, to “study human nature and act accordin’.”

A few years ago, our Representative at the time came to our research center for a tour and to give us a talk and take questions afterwards. My estimation of the skills that it takes to become a successful politician went up considerably. Not only did he take on a wide variety of questions, in answering them he always was able to make the point he wanted to make.

In short, he was a good salesman for his positions. You, as an intellectual, no doubt look down on your nose at that too, but it’s a skill set you probably lack. In academia, after all, toxic personalities are not only not penalized, they’re permitted to flourish.

Speaking of Congress, David Brinkley wrote:

It was a club whose members had varying degrees of competence, intelligence and honesty. But each had one undeniable achievement worthy of his colleagues’ respect – the ability to win an election. Sam Rayburn, speaker of the House, listened to committee testimony by a State Department official admired for his expertise and eloquence and said, “Yes, he’s pretty smart, but I’d trust him more if he’d ever won an election for sheriff.”

As Dr. Lederman says, it the way to make a real difference. But you have to work at it.

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