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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Most politicians are honest and deserve respect

The nice thing about writing a joint column that offends nearly every politician in sight, as we did last week, is that when someone complains I can say, "Gosh, that item must have been written by that rude guy Frank." (He can, of course, make me the villain).

To make amends for last week's column, I want to tell what I really think about elected leaders. The truth is, despite our propensity to criticize and poke fun (mostly in good humor), I have a very healthy respect for politicians at all levels of government. Elected leaders have done something that most of us will never do. They have put their names, reputations, egos and in some cases their very futures on the line, asking their peers to choose them over other candidates for positions of responsibility where they have the authority to wield the power of government.

It is a scary and lonely thing to do, to risk the pain of rejection and disappointment. And once in office it doesn't get any easier as politicians grapple with difficult, no-win decisions guaranteed to make a lot of people mad. For most elected officials, very little exists in the way of glory, headlines and great moments of leadership. But there's lots of sacrifice, tedium and plain old hard work.

Many years ago I worked as an intern for columnist/investigative reporter Jack Anderson in Washington, D.C., who seemed to hold nearly all politicians in bitter contempt. He reveled in bringing down the high and mighty and hardly ever met a politician he didn't detest.

I once heard him speak to a group of college students and after a long oration about how politicians were crooked and were destroying America, a student raised his hand and asked, "Mr. Anderson, if you're so smart and know all the answers, why don't you run for office yourself?"

I will never forget Anderson's answer. "Are you kidding?" he said. "I'd much rather be up in the stands yelling, 'Throw the bum out!' than be down there pitching myself."

We ought to respect those who are down there pitching. It's a tough job. That doesn't mean we ought to give them a free ride and ignore their foibles. Disagreement and criticism are part of our political process. But we ought to treat them with respect and acknowledge their special status as someone who has been duly elected by citizens to represent us. Some angry critics think that as soon as someone is elected, they automatically become objects of scorn and derision. The opposite is true.

So thanks to all of you who serve at great sacrifice and with little remuneration except the satisfaction of service.

Pignanelli: Despite what LaVarr claims, I have never characterized him as a villain — his part of the weekly column more than adequately performs that service. With a different twist, I concur with his comments this week.

The great Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden observed, "My deepest feeling about politicians is that they are dangerous lunatics to be avoided when possible . . . "

Political candidates are the caricature of mental instability. They spend an inordinate amount of time raising campaign funds far in excess of any compensation to be received. While in office, at least one-third of their constituents disagree with their actions. If they have done their job right they will be exhausted, poorer and resented by family members. Only the truly warped, like me, submit themselves to this kind of abuse.

Having spent most of my adult life mingling with elected officials and other politicos, I have garnered numerous observations. As individuals, almost all politicians are nice, agreeable people open to your concerns. But when clustered together, they develop a "pack mentality" (similar to wild dogs) and must growl and bare their fangs to demonstrate group loyalty; explaining the weird results from legislative caucus, Cabinet and council meetings. Despite jokes and rumors to the contrary, most local politicians are decent and honest. Out of the thousands encountered, I know of only a few who were completely dishonest. (Cynics could claim the rest lacked the brains to benefit their checkbook.) In fact, readers would be surprised — if not shocked — to know how many part-time officials are barely paying their mortgages.

Politicians are human beings (although some experts believe Rocky Anderson is of another species) and as such are burdened with a personal agenda, insecurities and ambition — frailties displayed before the public. These vices also include the tendency of politicians to read and believe their own press releases.

Readers often inquire whether elected officials vent anger or seek revenge in response to comments in this column. To their credit, most (but not all) politicians know that LaVarr and I are trying to make a point in a good-natured way and any retaliation will only egg us on. I have little patience with business, political and community leaders who begrudge our column or other thoughtful opinion pieces. This country dismissed long-ago the notion of divine right justifying status; therefore, all leaders are subject to question. Respected columnists (a status to which LaVarr and I aspire) limit criticism to a politician's statements and activities. Only if there is evidence of malice, selfishness or complete stupidity, will we attack someone's character.

Several months ago a reader confronted me with the following: "You are even more of an idiot than LaVarr. Every Sunday morning I look to see what foolishness you are spreading." It seems we are doing our job.


Republican LaVarr Webb was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. He now is a political consultant and lobbyist. E-mail: lwebb@exoro.com.

Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. A former candidate for Salt Lake mayor, Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. Pignanelli's spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is executive director of the state Department of Administrative Services in the Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. administration. E-mail: frankp@xmission.com.