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Where Have All the Statesmen Gone?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Brescia
December 21, 2018

Where have all the statesmen gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the statesmen gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the statesmen gone?
Gone from public service, most of them
When will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they… ever learn?

Apologies to Pete Seeger, but the cycle described in his 1965 song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” fits our present discussion of statesmanship quite handily. There have been several parodies in recent years changing the song’s lyrics, lamenting the loss of real public servants.

It’s becoming much more difficult to recognize statesmen in today’s public affairs landscape. I’d like to first point out the historical foundation for statesmanship – our U.S. Constitution. The founders understood the nature of human existence and they studied the governments of the ancients so that they could apply those lessons to our current republic. They wanted to avoid ignorance and shortsightedness in the exercise of governmental functions through its temporary agents. In fact, they relied on the existence and predominance of statesmen to carry out these functions in a superlative manner. Without that, our form of government would eventually fail. Therefore, the lack of practicing statesmen could bring about a constitutional crisis at some point.

For those of you waiting for a cheap argument about whether our current president, vice president, senator, congressperson or some other elected office holder is or is not a statesman, stop reading now and move on – you will be disappointed. Real statesmen rise above the tawdry political arguments of the day to the much higher realm of political strategy, what is right for the nation, right for everyone, and betters the human condition.

Statesmanship is fleeting, and we don’t really appreciate it until it’s gone – then we painfully recognize the loss, shaking our heads ruefully at its disappearance. You might consider statesmanship as the art and profession of public service. An American statesman is someone who has a deep respect for universal truths, using American values and principles as a foundation for action. Through tempest and tribulation, this foundation remains solid and can be relied on by everyone. The statesman doesn’t bend like a blade of grass in the wind; instead he remains tethered to credo, truth, and principles. A statesman doesn’t pander to separate audiences; he is the same each time you hear and see him. He does not care too much about polls. He acts and decides by following his own moral compass. He is, however, flexible enough to constantly try to find common ground among opposing perspectives. The statesman shuns media campaigns, opting for the power of the written and spoken word; he is an accomplished public speaker. The statesman considers present needs, but also looks over the horizon for future requirements. He is a person with uncompromising integrity, a truth-teller, and a caring, servant leader.  A statesman practices civility.

A well-known Texas statesman, former Attorney General John Ben Shepperd, published the Public Official’s Creed in a speech to the Texas Association of Constables and Justices of the Peace, Houston, Texas, May 30, 1953:

A Public Official’s Creed

A conscientious public official serves the people as guardian of their welfare, defender of their institutions, servant of their will, and champion of their cause, by dedicating himself to:

  • Putting God and Country above party, persons, and private interests.
  • Striving to promote a religious State but to avoid a State Religion.
  • Safeguarding the people’s right to free, unfettered elections, the secret ballot, and the honest count.
  • Encouraging decentralized government as a safeguard to the liberties of the people, and to keep government their servant and not their master.
  • Upholding the law and expose corruption wherever it may be, and to oppose those who break the law in spirit as well as those who violate it in letter.
  • Striving to make his office an example of efficiency, economy, and integrity.
  • Giving a day’s work for a day’s pay, and to require the same of his employees.
  • Making no private promises, grant no special favors, and receive no personal gifts which would compromise his official integrity.
  • Using no official power or information for personal gain to himself or to others.
  • Protecting the institution of private property by discouraging the excessive acquisition of land and other goods on the part of the government.
  • Defending the institution of private enterprise by keeping government out of business and out of competition with private capital.
  • Keeping the public informed of his office’s activities, to respect the right and function of the Press as the people’s informant, and to invite public scrutiny and constructive criticism.
  • Assisting the public schools in the civic education of children.
  • Being attentive to the activities and needs of other offices and branches of the government.
  • Striving to make his personal conduct exemplary of morality and good citizenship, and to fulfill the duties of a private citizen as well as a public servant.

You’ve probably recognized by now that statesmanship and ethics are inseparable. We need a lot of both. We’ve already got a lot of politicians. We need a lot more statesmen.

Author Dr. Robert Brescia serves as Founder & CEO of The Ethics House, a consulting agency designed to help cities and counties with their ethics programs. His latest book is Destination Greatness – Creating a New Americanism. Bob has a doctoral degree with distinction in Executive Leadership from The George Washington University. He also serves as Chairman of the Board at Basin PBS – West Texas public television and the Permian Basin American Red Cross. Please contact him at [email protected]  or Twitter: @Robert_Brescia.

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