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In praise of politicians

I've experienced a number of surreal moments in editorial board meetings, including watching Wil Cardon put Jeff Flake in a headlock. But none equals an editorial meeting in late October 2000. I told the story Monday night for Arizona Storytellers. A condensed version:

Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan and U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft were locked in a tight battle for a Senate seat. These two men were heavyweights who disagreed on every policy, and theirs was an election campaign for the ages.

They were scheduled to visit, back to back, with the Springfield News-Leader editorial board on Oct. 17. It was going to be a great day of political debate and discussion, a clash of two starkly different visions for the future. But on the night of Oct. 16, Carnahan's plane crashed, killing everyone on board.

Immense tragedy. The state mourned. President Clinton delivered the eulogy. Every candidate suspended campaigning, just three weeks before Election Day.

About a week to 10 days later, Ashcroft's press secretary let us know he was about to resume his campaign. They wanted to visit with our editorial board the first day, but it would have to be in the early evening.

We ordered a pizza. It didn't lighten the mood. We asked a few questions about policy, but for the most part we listened to a contemplative candidate. He, too, had campaigned in small planes like the one Carnahan had been in. He'd been in storms in those small planes. He knew the sacrifices Carnahan had made for a life in public service, because he had made the same sacrifices.

When Ashcroft was governor and Carnahan was lieutenant governor, Ashcroft initially wouldn't leave the state because he didn't want to chance making Carnahan the acting governor. He didn't trust Carnahan not to do mischief. That was the level of acrimony between the two. But as Ashcroft ruminated on that night in late October, we could see the respect he had for Carnahan. The two disagreed on everything, but they had walked the same path in the same belief that they could make Missouri a better place. Ashcroft was grieving like the rest of us.

It is easy to become jaded and cynical about politicians, especially since they mostly let us see only the cardboard cutouts who inhabit 30-second commercials where the opponent is the scum of the earth.

But that night 16 years ago continues to remind me that most politicians entered the public arena for the same reason most of us pursued our careers. We become doctors or teachers or accountants or plumbers or journalists because we have a passion for the work and a belief that we're contributing to our community. Sure, there are venal politicians, just as there are venal doctors, teachers, accountants, plumbers and journalists, but the vast majority are decent human beings seeking a better world. The candidate you disagree with is not evil; he or she just has a different answer.

Some people will call these thoughts naive. Fine. But maybe, just maybe, if more of us could share a pizza with a reflective candidate, our state and national politics would be healthier.

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