"The doer is always conscienceless; no one has a conscience except the spectator." - Goethe
These few words from the great German poet have what lawyers like to call "explanatory value." We spectators tend to huff and puff about broken campaign promises from our politicians. How can they renounce or ignore what they so earnestly promised when seeking our votes? The reality is, how can they not?
No doubt you've noticed that it's only when their faction is out of power that politicians embrace a set of appealing "principles," which they cast aside upon attaining or regaining ruling power. This is confusing to people ignorant of the fact that politicians, while preaching sentimental or program politics, actually do not believe their own words. The born politician, like everybody, has convictions that are dear to him as an individual - a private person, if you will - but does not feel bound by them when performing as an officeholder. If he did, he would soon be seeking another profession.
How many American presidents have promised to keep us out of war while actually plotting how to get us into one? Let's see, there was Woodrow Wilson, who won reelection in 1916 behind the campaign slogan "He kept us out of [the] war," and then, safely into a second term, did everything he could to get us into it. The ostensible reason for the switcheroo was to "make the world safe for democracy." The real reason was to further American imperial ambitions.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt also stated his desire for peace by using a similar slogan, "I will keep us out of war," while instituting a series of initiatives involving the United States in World War II before there was a declaration of war by Congress. First came the Conscription Bill, which the president and his people said was only for our own defense and that the men being drafted wouldn't be forced to serve more than a year and wouldn't be sent outside the Western Hemisphere. Then there was the Lend-Lease Bill, peddled as a way to prevent us from being sucked into another world war while actually giving the president the power to distribute American arms to Britain and other favored nations - which meant, of course, that we were then de facto actually involved in the war. You get the picture.
We remember George W. Bush pledging a "more humble foreign policy" while running against the future Godfather of Green, Al Gore, for the presidency in 2000. We know how that turned out, being mired in Eurasian wars draining us like a giant leech, with a promise of more to come. Barack Obama set some kind of record in the number (said to be 515) of campaign promises he made. As a natural result of this over-promising, he's probably established the record for promises broken.
There's a video online lasting less than two minutes of a speech candidate Obama made, in which he promised the following things of his presidency: 1) making government open and transparent; 2) making it "impossible" for congressmen to slip in pork barrel projects; 3) making meetings where laws are written open to the public; 4) promising "no more secrecy"; 5) that the public would have five days to look at any bill before he signed it into law; and 6) saying "We will put every pork barrel project online."
As you have observed, none of these promises has been kept. If we're to believe Goethe, we shouldn't be surprised. Nor should it come as a shock when Michael Bloomberg, the Napoleon-sized mayor of New York, once an ardent supporter of term limits - going so far as saying any effort to repeal them would be "disgusting" - manages to finagle (I'm avoiding the use of the word "bribe") his city council into revoking the prohibition against a mayor serving more than two terms.
The billionaire works for a dollar a year, which seems noble until one ponders that during his time in office, his net worth has skyrocketed. One could justifiably suspect a profit motive is at work in Hizzoner's "public service." Once a Republican, now an independent, Mr. Bloomberg spent somewhere around $85 million - maybe much more - of his fortune to beat back the under-funded challenge of a Democrat in a Democratic city. It would be childish to conclude there isn't an expected high return on this massive investment.
You want conscience? Don't look for it in politicians.
Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., on 1090 WBAL-AM and WBAL .com. His column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.