I still love to browse in bookstores and occasionally come up with some treasure I wouldn’t have found any other way. Recently I found a gem of a book called “The Doubter’s Almanac,” the author Ethan Canin, someone I had never heard of. The good news was that after thoroughly enjoying the book, I discovered he had written several others. Occasionally an author has one good book in him or her. For example, after reading Richard Powers’ extraordinary “The Time of Our Singing,” I didn’t find any of his other books compelling (though I hear he has a new one now that’s excellent). But after finishing the above, I continued with “America America” and am finding it as good, if not better, than the first.
This one is about a liberal senator running for President around the time of Nixon’s re-election and makes me almost nostalgic for a time when the dirty tricks of politics were so much more mild than they are now. One passage particularly struck me and rings true across all the many years between one crook (Nixon) and another (you know who). As follows:
One of the hallmarks of our politics now is that we tend to elect those who can campaign over those who can lead. For a man on the rise in politics, power first comes through character—that combination of station and forcefulness that produces not just intimidation, which is power’s crudest form, but flattery, too, which is one of its more refined. After that, power begins to grow from its own essence, rising no longer exclusively from the man but from the office itself. And this is where some balance must be found between its attainment and its allotment, between the unquenchable desire in any politician to rise, and the often humbling requirement that one’s station must now be used to some benefit. And here, of course, is where corruption begins: for power contains an irresistible urge to further itself: there is always the next race. But when finally there isn’t any more, when at last there is no more ambition to quell, no more inchoate striving to follow as a guidestar, then a politician must make a transformation that he may have no more ability to make than he has to grow wings and fly. He must change his personal ambition into ambition for his country.
And isn’t that last true for all of us? To shift our personal ambition to rise in our field—be it music, basketball, teaching or entrepreneurship—in service of the greater good.
Politicians, take note!