In Praise of Public Life

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In a vigorous defense of public life, Senator Joseph Lieberman, one of the most articulate and respected of our politicians, defines the duty, the honor and the priviledge of public life in the face of Americans' perennial cynicism about it.

Americans have always been suspicious of government and have misunderstood and mistrusted those in public life. This attitude is even more prevalent as the boundaries that once separated public and private life have fallen. Lieberman argues ...

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Overview

In a vigorous defense of public life, Senator Joseph Lieberman, one of the most articulate and respected of our politicians, defines the duty, the honor and the priviledge of public life in the face of Americans' perennial cynicism about it.

Americans have always been suspicious of government and have misunderstood and mistrusted those in public life. This attitude is even more prevalent as the boundaries that once separated public and private life have fallen. Lieberman argues that some of the public-s mistrust is based on a misconception of what public life is and why we need it. He then describes that life as he has lived it over the last three decades—with all its purpose, privileges, pressures, and pleasures.

Drawing widely from his own experience as a politician and his pride in public service, Leiberman makes a passionate, hopeful argument for the value of public life—its place and necessity in our democracy and our need for more Americans to embrace it if we are to sustain our self-government.

Lieberman asks fundamental questions about what standards of behavior should be expected of politicians in the sharply partisan, bigkj-money, search-and-destroy atmosphere of politics today. Who should set those standards? Is there room for a public figure to "be human," to "make mistakes"? Is there a line beyond which the personal behavior of a public official is nobody's business? Do citizens have an obligation to understand and determine the reponsibilities of public life?

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this slender volume, the junior U.S. senator from Connecticut makes a heartfelt case that the ills of American society can be corrected by working within the current political system rather than by overhauling it. While acknowledging that the federal government is far from perfect, Lieberman contends that it has many more good people than bad and that the process succeeds more often than fails. During his two terms in office, Lieberman has staked out a position as a moderate Democrat, firmly embracing the title of "New Democrat" first articulated by Bill Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas. Through cooperation and compromise, Congress has supported the Clinton administration in passing a number of crucial pieces of legislation (e.g., the 1993 balanced budget, NAFTA and GATT trade agreements) that the senator believes have helped spur the country's record economic growth. Lieberman also contends that the entertainment industry has played a major role in the decline in America's moral values; the entertainment industry doesn't reflect social norms but rather shapes values and influences behavior, Lieberman argues, and steps need to be taken to make the major media outlets act more for the public good. With so many politicians writing about burnout and their frustrations with serving in elected office, it is refreshing to hear the point of view of someone who still finds politics a noble calling. (Feb.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
In this short volume, U.S. Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (D-CT), chair of the influential Democratic Leadership Council (the moderate "third way" movement in the Democratic Party), has attempted to reclaim the moral high ground for public service. Aware of the rise of citizen contempt for public officials and voters' well-known cynicism about politics in general, Lieberman nonetheless attempts to inject a mainstream moral sensitivity into the public arena in hopes of both cleaning up the political process and drawing disaffected voters back into the fold. But his book is less a study of these advertised themes than a conventional political biography, focusing on Lieberman's political career. However, Lieberman does make some valuable points, and in his conclusion, he returns to the theme of the value of public service, offering some important reform proposals. For all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/99.]--Michael A. Genovese, Loyola Marymount Univ., Los Angeles Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684867748
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 2/17/2000
  • Pages: 176
  • Product dimensions: 5.62 (w) x 8.68 (h) x 0.68 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Prologue

There are times, now and then, when my mother will read something critical about me in the newspapers, or she'll hear the fatigue in my voice during an evening phone conversation from my home in Washington to hers in Connecticut. "Sweetheart," she'll say, in that voice I've heard all my life, "do you really need this?"

I laugh and answer, "Yes, Mom, I really do need this. I love it."

Of course, my mother knows what my answer will be, and I know she is proud of it. But her question makes a good point. There's a lot you have to learn to live with if you are going to hold elected office and live a public life in America today. Privacy, for example, is difficult to maintain, for you and your family. Criticism, when you receive it (and you can count on receiving it, from political adversaries, if not from the man on the street or from the media), is sometimes searing, frequently personal and almost always public. The media -- newspapers, television, radio -- shadow public officials' every move, analyzing their words and deeds, scrutinizing their intentions, second-guessing their decisions and questioning their intelligence, not to mention their integrity. In this age of around-the-clock live cable television news, radio and the Internet, those judgments are instantly and constantly transmitted, day in and day out, to tens of millions of viewers, listeners and readers, often without adhering to the traditional journalistic standards of accuracy and reliability.

It's hard to imagine a career -- other than professional athletics or entertainment -- where one's job performance is as visible, as studied and as magnified as a politician's. Like an athlete and an entertainer, an elected official today must face questions not only about how he is doing his job but how he is living his life -- and how he has lived his life. Besides being expected to account for almost any aspect of his present existence, he may well be asked to explain things he did years or even decades ago, long before he entered public life. Unlike an athlete and an entertainer, whose wayward behavior -- past or present -- can often embellish a career, a politician's words and deeds are typically held to the highest of standards, and he is, in the most acutely direct sense, answerable for those actions -- answerable to the public. They are the people who hired him. They are the people who can fire him. And they are also the people to whom he must constantly turn for not only approval but also tangible support.

If you are going to live the life of a politician, you have to learn to ask people for support -- political and financial. That is not always easy or comfortable. You have to ask them as well for their votes. And you have to be aware that they might want something in return that you may not be able to give them, which they may not understand, and which they may therefore resent.

As a politician, you will also have to endure the disdain of those who consider your profession little more than bartering political favors for money and votes. You may well be sullied by the fight for election, drawn into the kind of negative campaigning and mudslinging that leaves both winners and losers dirtied and degraded in the public eye. Upon entering office, you will step into yet another arena that has turned uglier than ever before, this one infected with the partisan infighting of political parties that are polarized today to a degree unequaled in our nation's recent history.

So why in the world would anyone in his or her right mind choose such a life?

Well, I'm afraid fewer and fewer people are choosing it. This is bad for our democracy, and it is also the reason I am writing this book.

I had lunch not long ago with a group of interns in my Senate office. I try to do this each summer, at the end of these students' time with us, as a way of thanking them and saying goodbye before they head back to their colleges. This particular group came from a broad mix of campuses, including UCLA, the University of Virginia, Trinity College, the College of William and Mary, and my alma mater, Yale. Toward the end of the meal, I asked how many of them were thinking about pursuing a career in public life after graduation. Most were, which was not surprising. They probably wouldn't have spent their summer on Capitol Hill if they weren't. But when I went further and asked how many of their friends and classmates were considering a career in politics, they said not many, if any. I asked why.

"They think," said one, "that politics is just a lot of noise and not much is accomplished."

"It's too partisan," said another. "And too nasty. And politicians don't have any privacy."

"Too often," said a third, "it seems like politicians spend most of their time raising money -- big money."

Meanness. Big money. Partisanship.

Not much accomplished.

The reasons these students ticked off for their classmates' aversion mirror the disdain most of the nation feels right now for politics and for politicians.

That is not surprising when you think about the sordid spectacle that culminated in the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, the partisan bickering and bloodletting unleashed throughout that national crisis, the aura of zealous pursuit infecting the independent counsel's investigation, the media's seemingly unquenchable thirst for scandal, the ascent of a character like Larry Flynt as a moral arbiter and influence on this momentous process. In the wake of such a gaudy and demeaning saga at what is supposed to be the highest, most dignified level of our society, is it any wonder that Americans by the millions simply turned away in disappointment and disgust?

Voter turnout for the November 1998 elections, which followed the President's nationally televised "confession" of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and the subsequent beginning of the impeachment proceedings in the House, was 36 percent -- the lowest for any midterm election since 1942. Think about that number. For every eligible American who voted, there were two who did not.

That disheartening statistic tells us that fewer Americans than ever can muster enough trust in their government to conclude that it is worth voting. This cynicism has infected the American people to the point where a disturbingly large number of them no longer believe that public life in our democracy -- the very core of our system of representative government -- is worthy of their respect, let alone their involvement. In a survey taken in 1964, three out of four Americans said they believed in their government and trusted their elected leaders. A similar survey taken last year found that figure had dropped to one in four.

One in four.

Public confidence did not plummet overnight. It did not begin with Bill Clinton. Politicians and government have endured suspicion and a certain degree of scorn since the birth of this nation. This skepticism on the part of the American public is a grand tradition, as deeply rooted in our society as the spirit of freedom and independence and limited government. What is new, however, is the degree to which that suspicion and scorn have grown in the past thirty years. These three decades have seen an unprecedented parade of betrayals of the public's trust, from the deception that lay behind the Vietnam War, to the shock of the Watergate scandal, to Iran-Contra and the partisan political and cultural warfare that erupted in the 1980s, to the personal attacks on public figures like Judge Robert Bork, Speaker Jim Wright and Justice Clarence Thomas, to the unseemly revelations of campaign finance wrongdoing in 1996, and on through the earthshaking impeachment experience of 1998 and 1999.

That's an awful beating for a political system to take over the course of just one generation. And it has brought us to a low point in the American people's relationship with their government. They are experiencing a real crisis of confidence not just in politicians but in the value of public life in our democracy, which troubles me deeply because I've lived that life for those same past thirty years -- virtually my entire adulthood -- and I think it deserves better. I've experienced its challenges and satisfactions, and I've felt its pitfalls and pressures. I know the strains it can put on a personal life -- on a marriage and a family. I've felt the probing eye of the media push further and further into public officials' offices and homes. I've seen the role of money in political campaigns grow more uncontrollable and corrosive year after year. I've felt the viciousness of partisanship infect the process of politics to the point where reasonable collaboration becomes almost impossible. I've watched good men go bad, their judgment clouded by zealotry and ideological obligation, by ego and ambition, by the dark side of power and prestige, or simply and sadly by desires that become needs.

The American people have watched these things as well. Every day, on the pages of hundreds of newspapers and magazines, they read ringside accounts of the latest political battle, or corruption, or scandal. Every day they watch the constant flow of television news broadcasts. They listen to analysts on radio talk shows dissect and diagnose the political news of the day with each other, with the audience and with the politicians themselves. They scour the Internet. And for a firsthand look at government doing its business, they watch C-SPAN.

With such a wealth of access and input, it's easy to feel that we've got more than enough information about public life and those who are living it to make conclusive judgments about the quality, the value and even the future of that life.

But, with all that Americans are shown of public life through the media, there is more that they do not see that is good and hopeful. There are aspects of life in goverment that are not conveyed by today's cameras and tape recorders that are fascinating, encouraging and even enjoyable. Without understanding these fuller dimensions of this life, it is hard to honestly and accurately judge it, or to prescribe solutions for what ails it. Communicating that more complete picture of public life is exactly what I want to do in this book.

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Table of Contents

Prologue

ONE On Politics as a Career
TWO The Roots of a Public Life
THREE Mounting a First Campaign
FOUR Straight and Honest
FIVE Losing
SIX The Modern Campaign
SEVEN The Life
EIGHT The Job
NINE The Future

Index

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First Chapter

Prologue

There are times, now and then, when my mother will read something critical about me in the newspapers, or she'll hear the fatigue in my voice during an evening phone conversation from my home in Washington to hers in Connecticut. "Sweetheart," she'll say, in that voice I've heard all my life, "do you really need this?"

I laugh and answer, "Yes, Mom, I really do need this. I love it."

Of course, my mother knows what my answer will be, and I know she is proud of it. But her question makes a good point. There's a lot you have to learn to live with if you are going to hold elected office and live a public life in America today. Privacy, for example, is difficult to maintain, for you and your family. Criticism, when you receive it (and you can count on receiving it, from political adversaries, if not from the man on the street or from the media), is sometimes searing, frequently personal and almost always public. The media — newspapers, television, radio — shadow public officials' every move, analyzing their words and deeds, scrutinizing their intentions, second-guessing their decisions and questioning their intelligence, not to mention their integrity. In this age of around-the-clock live cable television news, radio and the Internet, those judgments are instantly and constantly transmitted, day in and day out, to tens of millions of viewers, listeners and readers, often without adhering to the traditional journalistic standards of accuracy and reliability.

It's hard to imagine a career — other than professional athletics or entertainment — where one's job performance is as visible, as studied and as magnified as a politician's. Like an athlete and an entertainer, an elected official today must face questions not only about how he is doing his job but how he is living his life — and how he has lived his life. Besides being expected to account for almost any aspect of his present existence, he may well be asked to explain things he did years or even decades ago, long before he entered public life. Unlike an athlete and an entertainer, whose wayward behavior — past or present — can often embellish a career, a politician's words and deeds are typically held to the highest of standards, and he is, in the most acutely direct sense, answerable for those actions — answerable to the public. They are the people who hired him. They are the people who can fire him. And they are also the people to whom he must constantly turn for not only approval but also tangible support.

If you are going to live the life of a politician, you have to learn to ask people for support — political and financial. That is not always easy or comfortable. You have to ask them as well for their votes. And you have to be aware that they might want something in return that you may not be able to give them, which they may not understand, and which they may therefore resent.

As a politician, you will also have to endure the disdain of those who consider your profession little more than bartering political favors for money and votes. You may well be sullied by the fight for election, drawn into the kind of negative campaigning and mudslinging that leaves both winners and losers dirtied and degraded in the public eye. Upon entering office, you will step into yet another arena that has turned uglier than ever before, this one infected with the partisan infighting of political parties that are polarized today to a degree unequaled in our nation's recent history.

So why in the world would anyone in his or her right mind choose such a life?

Well, I'm afraid fewer and fewer people are choosing it. This is bad for our democracy, and it is also the reason I am writing this book.

I had lunch not long ago with a group of interns in my Senate office. I try to do this each summer, at the end of these students' time with us, as a way of thanking them and saying goodbye before they head back to their colleges. This particular group came from a broad mix of campuses, including UCLA, the University of Virginia, Trinity College, the College of William and Mary, and my alma mater, Yale. Toward the end of the meal, I asked how many of them were thinking about pursuing a career in public life after graduation. Most were, which was not surprising. They probably wouldn't have spent their summer on Capitol Hill if they weren't. But when I went further and asked how many of their friends and classmates were considering a career in politics, they said not many, if any. I asked why.

"They think," said one, "that politics is just a lot of noise and not much is accomplished."

"It's too partisan," said another. "And too nasty. And politicians don't have any privacy."

"Too often," said a third, "it seems like politicians spend most of their time raising money — big money."

Meanness. Big money. Partisanship.

Not much accomplished.

The reasons these students ticked off for their classmates' aversion mirror the disdain most of the nation feels right now for politics and for politicians.

That is not surprising when you think about the sordid spectacle that culminated in the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, the partisan bickering and bloodletting unleashed throughout that national crisis, the aura of zealous pursuit infecting the independent counsel's investigation, the media's seemingly unquenchable thirst for scandal, the ascent of a character like Larry Flynt as a moral arbiter and influence on this momentous process. In the wake of such a gaudy and demeaning saga at what is supposed to be the highest, most dignified level of our society, is it any wonder that Americans by the millions simply turned away in disappointment and disgust?

Voter turnout for the November 1998 elections, which followed the President's nationally televised "confession" of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and the subsequent beginning of the impeachment proceedings in the House, was 36 percent — the lowest for any midterm election since 1942. Think about that number. For every eligible American who voted, there were two who did not.

That disheartening statistic tells us that fewer Americans than ever can muster enough trust in their government to conclude that it is worth voting. This cynicism has infected the American people to the point where a disturbingly large number of them no longer believe that public life in our democracy — the very core of our system of representative government — is worthy of their respect, let alone their involvement. In a survey taken in 1964, three out of four Americans said they believed in their government and trusted their elected leaders. A similar survey taken last year found that figure had dropped to one in four.

One in four.

Public confidence did not plummet overnight. It did not begin with Bill Clinton. Politicians and government have endured suspicion and a certain degree of scorn since the birth of this nation. This skepticism on the part of the American public is a grand tradition, as deeply rooted in our society as the spirit of freedom and independence and limited government. What is new, however, is the degree to which that suspicion and scorn have grown in the past thirty years. These three decades have seen an unprecedented parade of betrayals of the public's trust, from the deception that lay behind the Vietnam War, to the shock of the Watergate scandal, to Iran-Contra and the partisan political and cultural warfare that erupted in the 1980s, to the personal attacks on public figures like Judge Robert Bork, Speaker Jim Wright and Justice Clarence Thomas, to the unseemly revelations of campaign finance wrongdoing in 1996, and on through the earthshaking impeachment experience of 1998 and 1999.

That's an awful beating for a political system to take over the course of just one generation. And it has brought us to a low point in the American people's relationship with their government. They are experiencing a real crisis of confidence not just in politicians but in the value of public life in our democracy, which troubles me deeply because I've lived that life for those same past thirty years — virtually my entire adulthood — and I think it deserves better. I've experienced its challenges and satisfactions, and I've felt its pitfalls and pressures. I know the strains it can put on a personal life — on a marriage and a family. I've felt the probing eye of the media push further and further into public officials' offices and homes. I've seen the role of money in political campaigns grow more uncontrollable and corrosive year after year. I've felt the viciousness of partisanship infect the process of politics to the point where reasonable collaboration becomes almost impossible. I've watched good men go bad, their judgment clouded by zealotry and ideological obligation, by ego and ambition, by the dark side of power and prestige, or simply and sadly by desires that become needs.

The American people have watched these things as well. Every day, on the pages of hundreds of newspapers and magazines, they read ringside accounts of the latest political battle, or corruption, or scandal. Every day they watch the constant flow of television news broadcasts. They listen to analysts on radio talk shows dissect and diagnose the political news of the day with each other, with the audience and with the politicians themselves. They scour the Internet. And for a firsthand look at government doing its business, they watch C-SPAN.

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2004

    A good read for any American

    Senator Lieberman writes a good book about his beliefs on why he believes public service is a good deed for Americans. He highlights his life and career in politics, while primarily focusing on his quest to the higher positions in political rank. The book kept me stimulated throughout the short amount of text. My only wish is if it would have been longer possibly highlighting different issues related to stances he took in greater detail. His book is a success and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about our government. After seeing when the book was published and reading his references to the 2000 campaign for the presidency, I believe his book was written for hopeful benefit in the election. Regardless, he makes a great argument on reasons concerning the necessity of people serving us in public office.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2001

    Right symptoms, wrong diagnosis

    With his book, In Praise of Public Life, Senator Lieberman seems to convey the following point of view: 'Americans are dissatisfied with their government, so they should be shown why they are wrong.' Through 153 hardcover pages, Lieberman never seems to consider the possibility that the American people are right. He does a good job in showing how the structure of the American political system (particularly the existence of political parties and the concentration of power in the hands of elected officials) rewards behavior that is inappropriate for public service, but then fails to recognize that for government to improve, the structure must change. He thinks that the solution is for more people to get involved in the process, but he does not recognize the difficulty of effective participation, that is, how hard it is to get the government to do what we want it to do. This is most evident in his statement that, in general, he will cast votes according to his own opinion, even if that opinion is 'unpopular' -- which is just the kind of behavior that shuts people out of the process. It is interesting that Lieberman appears to assume that when the people disagree with him, they are wrong and he is right. Essentially, Lieberman is arguing that people should flock to the polls to elect someone who will vote any way he wants to regardless of what they think, which is, at the very least, an odd argument. The problem is just the thing that Lieberman is celebrating: the fact that he is a professional politician. He has more than 20 years of legislative experience, that is, more than 20 years of being able to cast votes and even draft legislation on issues that are important to him. Most people have few, or even no, chances to vote directly on issues of personal importance. So Lieberman's public career has left him estranged from the typical American political experience. (As a side note, at one point, Lieberman refers to a study of 'mainstream Americans' that only surveyed members of the middle class, as though people who are not middle class are somehow not quite American enough. He also speaks of religion as if all Americans were religious, although at least a third are not and one in twenty does not believe in any gods at all.) He compares a professional politician to a professional plumber, but misses the differences: there is no two-party plumbing system, plumbers do not run for election, and if you don't like your plumber, you can call another one or even do the job yourself. If you don't like your Congressman, however, you're stuck. The American political system is stuck, in desperate need of fundamental reform; unfortunately, Lieberman misses the chance to call for such reform and chooses to 'cheerlead' instead. As a whole, the book is interesting but is also a missed opportunity.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2001

    very honest, a little dull

    Senator Lieberman writes a pleasant and honest accounting of his life in politics. It is not exciting in the least, but that makes it feel more real. If you are interested in what a career in politics might be like, behind all the show and all the egos, I would highly recommend this book. Is the J. Janos who wrote the other review really THE J. Janos? The one who should be running for president? If so, I am glad he read this book!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2000

    Public Service Is Not A Dirty Word!

    This book by a son of a liquor store small businessman and now Senator of the United States from Connecticut is long overdue. Finally someone with my view has come to the forefront talking about the duty, honor and hard work it takes to serve in a public office. The book explains how many masses of the people should begin campaigns of change to help others, improve the community and not fear the government but embrace it for the common good. This author walks in his own shoes, tells us about his own experiences, and in this day of attack politics says we have to find a better way. You will enjoy this book and it will inspire your view of public servants who serve the people instead of themselves. This is the kind of book and man that bring some honor back to the Democratic Party, a party who prefers winning over the truth and has lost its way recently. Finally one of our own has said it and about time. I highly recommend this book and commend the author for writing it.

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