Diane Mufson: Identifying the good politicians is challenging

February 21, 2019

Every day, some politicians cause us to rub our heads and cringe in disbelief as they make pathetic statements and display embarrassing behaviors. This month’s award for the most ridiculous comment by a West Virginia politician goes to Delegate Eric Porterfield, R-Mercer, who said “The LGBTQ is a modern-day version of the Ku Klux Klan.”

Politicians’ weird and biased utterances are nothing new. What is different is the frequency with which media platforms share them. This makes finding a person that the great majority of Americans would agree is a “good politician” a real challenge.

I’ve been searching for a good politician to hold up as a model, one who would make me want to vote for him or her early and often. I located one; unfortunately, I found him through his obituary.

I’m sure this “good politician,” former Republican Gov. Robert Ray of Iowa, did not always please everyone and others may have negative views of him. However, some Iowans told me that they remember him favorably.

His statements reflect decency and rationality. He once said that his “approach to governing was simple: leave politics out of the decision-making process.” He used to tell his staff, “Let’s just decide what the right thing to do is, and then we’ll decide how to promote it.” He apparently meant the right thing to do for most of his state’s citizens, not the best thing to do for himself, his business interests or a select few.

In 1975, as the Vietnam War ended, he decided that it was good idea to bring Vietnam refugees to Iowa. His advisors disapproved; it might hinder his re-election. Ray’s response was, “I can make more money if I don’t get re-elected” and besides, “It was saving the lives of refugees.” Decades ago, a well-known and respected Huntington leader suggested a similar path for our state. People laughed at the idea.

Ray was chairman of Iowa’s Republican Party, yet some of his views didn’t mesh with his party’s. He created the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women, supported civil rights, believed in energy conservation and encouraged recycling. He was a family man and not prone to scandals.

Politicians’ bad behaviors are nothing new, but until Gary Hart’s 1987 presidential campaign scandal, most men were given a pass for indiscretions. Good political folks don’t have to be saints and often have made significant mistakes in their youth. When young, West Virginia’s late Senator Robert C. Byrd was a KKK member and staunchly anti-civil rights. His views changed over the years; he became a one-man economic engine for this state and opposed the Iraq war.

Many American presidents from both parties, including Roosevelt (FDR), Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton and Jefferson, have been involved in personal and governmental blunders. Presidents Nixon, Andrew Johnson and Harding were involved in major scandals. Would Sen. Ted Kennedy have been re-elected if Chappaquiddick occurred this year? South Carolina’s Gov. Mark Sanford, who “disappeared while hiking the Appalachian Trail” when actually seeing his Argentinian lover, left office only to be re-elected a few years later. With the #MeToo movement and increased sensitivity to racial issues, Virginia’s leaders are now embroiled over unacceptable past behaviors.

There are no perfect people and, therefore, no flawless politicians. But there are many “good politicians” on both sides of the aisle who understand the needs of our nation and states. Our job is to identify, elect and support them.

Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.