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What Does a Statesman Look Like?

The term "politician" isn’t a popular one, even with politicians. Most people would agree that to be labeled a "statesman" is a much higher compliment — and that we need fewer of the former and more of the latter. There’s a general sense that statesmen lift us up, while politicians let us down. This column will seek to foster a climate which will produce more statesmen and fewer politicians, so let’s begin with some observations about what distinguishes one from the other.

Statesmen are a big cut above politicians, who seek office for thrills or for power or because they like the attention it brings them. Some politicians are better than others, but statesmen rise above mere politics, that meat grinder of principles. The clever politician knows how to manipulate power for personal advantage, but the statesman’s allegiance is to loftier objectives.

Statesmen don’t seek public office for personal gain or attention. Like George Washington, they often are people who take time out from productive careers of accomplishment to temporarily serve the public. They don’t have to work for government because that’s all they know how to do. They stand for a principled vision, not for what they think citizens will fall for. When a statesman gets elected, he doesn’t forget the public-spirited citizens who sent him to office and become a mouthpiece for the permanent bureaucracy or some special interest that greased his campaign.

Because they seek the truth, statesmen are more likely to do what’s right than what may be politically popular at the moment. You know where they stand because they say what they mean and they mean what they say. They do not engage in class warfare, race-baiting or in other divisive or partisan tactics that pull people apart. They do not buy votes with tax dollars. They don’t make promises they can’t keep or intend to break. They take responsibility for their actions. A statesman doesn’t try to pull himself up by dragging somebody else down, and he doesn’t try to convince people they’re victims just so he can posture as their savior.

When it comes to managing public finances, statesmen prioritize. They don’t behave as though government deserves an endlessly larger share of other people’s money. They exhibit the courage to cut less important expenses to make way for more pressing ones. They don’t try to build empires. Instead, they keep government within its proper bounds and trust in what free and enterprising people can accomplish. Politicians think that they’re smart enough to plan other people’s lives; statesmen are wise enough to understand what utter folly such arrogant attitudes really are.

Have you ever felt that in spite of a long campaign and lots of speeches, you learned essentially nothing from a particular candidate? That one was a politician. I prefer the statesman: the man or woman of substance who, win or lose, had the courage to lay it out straight.

Politicians are characters, but statesmen have character. A statesman is a man or woman of integrity, honesty and candor. You actually learn something good from what he says and how he conducts himself. When a politician leaves office, he’s largely forgotten. When a statesman departs, we know we’ve lost something.

Michigan doesn’t suffer from a shortage of politicians. First and foremost, it needs a citizenry that is vigilant about the nature of government and its proper role in a free society of responsible adults. That’s the sort of citizenry that then has the wisdom to produce statesmen.

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.