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McGovern's death brings nostalgia for the age of statesmen

Politicians are punished for putting the needs of the country first

By Alex Clearfield

1:29 PM EDT, October 22, 2012

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Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, a Republican, spoke at Johns Hopkins University last week. He mostly avoided partisan politics, instead focusing on the roles of China and technology in determining America's future. However, he did address his failed presidential campaign, noting that his serving as ambassador to China under President Barack Obama hurt his standing with conservatives. To thunderous applause, Mr. Huntsman said (and I paraphrase), "No matter your party, when your president calls on you to serve, you do it." This sentiment is anathema to many of our government officials today.

As I reflect on the death of former representative, senator, presidential candidate, ambassador and war hero George McGovern, I find myself nostalgic for a bygone era in American politics. Even though many vehemently disagreed with McGovern's liberal policies (which led to his landslide loss in the 1972 presidential election), he was still widely respected as an articulate, dedicated leader. His generation, which thrived in government from the end of World War II until the 1990s, has been mostly replaced by a generation of men and women who are afraid to serve under another party's administration and instead spend their twilight years collecting speaking fees and playing golf. The era of the statesmen, great leaders who served America in many capacities regardless of who was in power, is drawing to a close.

McGovern is not the only one. Consider one of my political heroes, George Mitchell: federal judge, Democratic senator, and a special envoy to both the Middle East and Northern Ireland, in addition to many roles in the private sector. Or, from the other side of the aisle, George H.W. Bush: war hero, representative, ambassador, CIA director, vice president, president, and international aid activist. They were, or are, great men and some of the best leaders our country has known. When their country called, they and many others, like Bob Dole and Daniel Moynihan, stood up and volunteered.

Leaders like Jon Huntsman are rare. We are left with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, an admitted obstructionist who spent a good amount of time last fall using his position to lobby for his alma mater to join a larger collegiate athletic conference. We are left with a Congress that has renamed more than 37 government buildings and post offices, accounting for close to 20 percent of its legislative output this term. Our government is dominated by men and women who think small and hold grudges, and I fear that almost none of them will ever serve as an ambassador, head a presidential commission, or even take a call from a member of the other party.

The era of the statesmen is not coming back soon. Partisanship is dominant, and cooperation is dead. We are 15 days away from one of the most divisive elections in modern history, one mostly devoid of meaningful discussion. Bipartisan legislation is almost nonexistent. The era of accepting a commission as an ambassador instead of a lucrative law firm partnership or presidency of a consulting firm is over. The era of calling your fellow lawmakers "communists," as Florida Republican Rep. Allen West did, is ascendant. What we are left with is trying to mix two extremes, akin to pouring boiling water on a frozen windshield: You're left with many cracks and a large repair bill.

Whether Mr. Huntsman would have won an election against President Obama is uncertain. What I am certain of is that public servants like him are a dying breed, and that he will have a meaningful future in politics even if he never runs for office again. The same cannot be said for many of our current officials. It is due to lack of ambition, ingrained party ties, and an allergy to bipartisanship.

No matter who wins the presidential election, fixing the country will require the best of all sides to ignore partisanship and craft compromise. At this rate, our elected officials are not up to the task. I doubt a prominent Democrat would accept a cabinet position or ambassadorship under a President Mitt Romney for fear of being seen as a traitor to the party, or fear of sacrificing a high-paying, secure job. The same goes for Republicans and a second Obama term. For better or worse, we have two parties and one country, and we need the best of both to put country first, roll up their sleeves, and get to work.

Alex Clearfield is a junior political science major at Johns Hopkins University. His email is aclearf1@jhu.edu. This article originally appeared in JHU Politik.