Members of the Club: We can all do better

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Most members of the Washington insiders' club come to town brimming with idealism, and then something happens. It's as if there were something in the air there that changes them with every breath. Lawyers rarely graduate from law school with dreams of becoming a lobbyist, but if you're a lawyer in Washington, that's where the action is. Most political consultants begin their careers in a campaign that stirs their souls, and then they get hooked on the adrenalin of combat and the money from lucrative consulting contracts. Pundits often start out as journalists and then morph into opinion-spouting television celebrities. Think-tank stalwarts get caught up in a swirl of fund-raising and media strategies that leave little time for their substantive work.

All these "members of the club" love their country. They work hard at building their professional skills. They love their friends and their families. They have dreams for their children. But when it comes to politics, most of them can't break free from the cynicism that dominates the Washington culture and snuffs out the quintessentially American can-do spirit.

For the lobbyist members of the Washington club, government power can be an aphrodisiac. The best calling card in today's Washington is to be a friend of the president. The next best is to be a friend of the committee chairman or the cabinet secretary. Lobbyists love to use their connections -- to exercise them for their clients. The amount of money that changes hands in some of these transactions is mind-boggling.

If the Washington culture is cynical, its most frequent expression is complaint. No president, at least since I went to Washington in 1979, has ever measured up for members of the club, no matter what his ranking in the polls. The state of perpetual dissatisfaction is not a state from which dreams can spring. If you're a politician, the Washington club is the hammer and you're the nail. The unspoken premise of many media interview is that you are probably not telling the truth. Few in the club are moved by honest sentiment or devotion to public service. Most see everyone in politics as attempting to manipulate everyone else. Politics, they believe, is all about posturing and self-interest. The electorate, they think, is uninformed, the politicians venal. A politician's expression of emotion is invariably disbelieved and often ridiculed. The admission that you don't know something is seen as weakness. The sad irony is that many members of the club may be idealists underneath, for as the saying goes, a cynic is nothing more than a disappointed romantic.

Contrast this picture with the way most people in America live their lives. Even as their economic prospects have declined in the last thirty years, they have continued to believe in their country's fundamental health. They give their neighbor the benefit of the doubt. They look for silver linings. They take selfless actions. They make due. They endure.

When I ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000, my conviction about the decency of the American people was only amplified. They wanted to believe in a positive future. They looked to you with the expectation that if you were president you could change their lives for the better. To be worthy of that trust, you gave them the best you had, you answered all their questions, you responded to the problems they confronted, the dreams they held onto, the frustrations they felt. A great deal of respect was conveyed -- not so much for me as for the office I aspired to, which is why it is such a tremendous privilege to place yourself before the citizens of this country and seek the presidency.

Some of the people I encountered, to be sure, were unreasonable, angry zealots. The great majority were not. You would stand before an audience, with all eyes on you. I loved the eyes, in which I could read doubt or hope or anxiety or anger or support. I loved connecting with people in the audience until you had the whole room going with you as you tried to persuade them of your views. Most Americans will give you a hearing if they sense that you're putting the country ahead of your party and telling them the truth. I enjoyed sharing stories from my life and my hopes for the country. I especially enjoyed listening to their stories, which were full of unexpected twists, sometimes sad, occasionally funny, and frequently inspirational. When you are a politician who tries to feel the heartbeat of your district, or your state, or your country, you get a sense of the whole, a feel for what binds us together as citizens. The knowledge that hope is still alive outside our nation's capital balances the cynicism of the club and reminds us of what we have done and can do again.

Bradley is a former Democratic senator from New Jersey. This is an adapted excerpt from his new book "We Can All Do Better", published by Vanguard Press. Copyright © 2012 by Bill Bradley.