As I noted yesterday, I had a full plate of state-level political leaders on campus today.
Governor Sonny Perdue addressed an auditorium full of students, faculty, staff, and guests this morning, focusing on the themes of trust and leadership. Without explicitly referring to Aristotle, he offered a concrete example of why the optimal size of a political order is one in which everyone is a friend of a friend. For Perdue, trustworthiness has to be established personally, and hence all politics must ultimately be personal. Hard to manage in a state with over 8 million inhabitants and in a reelection campaign whose budget is approaching $15 million, but worth holding up as a touchstone. Stated another way: character matters, and you can tell a lot about a person by looking at his (or her) family.
As you can tell, this wasn’t a political speech, but was meant rather to reach a college-age audience, who have likely given more thought to family and friendship than they have to political life. It worked as a civic lesson, and it worked as a way of conveying the dignity and decency of public life. I couldn’t have asked for a better or more appropriate message to counter the premature cynicism of so many of my students.
Perdue connects well with his audience and impressed the unscientific sample of students with whom I spoke afterward. The student introducer and questioners also acquitted themselves well, the former managing to convey something of the Governor’s personality and the latter posing questions that were well-formulated and respectful, focusing on the Governor’s promotion of Georgia’s international profile and on public support for private higher education.
A short while later, I hosted Mary Margaret Oliver, a long-time Georgia state legislator who has focused much of her career on child and family issues. As she is unopposed for reelection, she could be very forthright and pointed in the issues and questions she raises. A slightly left-of-center Democrat (who once had statewide political aspirations), Rep. Oliver argued that state government spends too much time and effort on economic development and not enough on education and health care. We worry too much, she argued, about jobs, and not enough about the 40% of those who enter high school in Georgia, but do not graduate.
While she tried to cast this contrast in terms of class (with governors--including her old State Senate suitemate Sonny Perdue, once a Democrat--spending too much time associating with the "super-rich" who bring capital and jobs to the state), I think that there’s a more plausible explanation. Rep. Oliver spoke movingly about the plight of a "permanent underclass," of toddlers who, without state intervention, would be at the mercy of their drug-addicted mothers. It’s extremely hard, she said, to know what to do. How do you intervene? How many chances at rehabilitation do you give the mother? (If I’d been anything other than the good host, I might have asked her here what she thought of state funding for faith-based drug rehabilitation, but I held my tongue.) In short, there are limits to what the state can do in dealing with problems that she came very close to conceding were intractable. And surely there are even greater limits to what a state can do in the relatively short terms allotted to political leaders who have to be able to point to successes in the face of an adversarial environment if they’re to win reelection. It’s much easier to point to the billions of dollars of new investment and the thousands (or tens of thousands) of jobs that have been created on your watch. Those are metrics everyone can understand and about which it’s relatively easy to boast. And, of course, jobs are, for the most part, uncontroversial (unless they’re held by illegal immigrants).
After listening to Rep. Oliver, I’m reminded of something that Rousseau said (which I’ll have to paraphrase badly, since I don’t have the text in front of me): today’s politicians talk incessantly about commerce and money; their predecessors spoke about morals. Rep. Oliver doesn’t want them to talk about money so much, but I’m not sure that she wants them to talk about morals and character in a way that might--just might--begin meaningfully to address some of her very real concerns regarding the least among us.
All in all, a busy and interesting day. The more I listen to these state-level political figures, the more I’m convinced that Georgia has an impressive stock of genuine public servants. Sounds corny and pollyannaish, I know, but I haven’t encountered a stinker yet. (People assure me that there are some, but they seem to be allergic to speaking at Oglethorpe.)