Commentary: Who — and where — are our mindful political leaders?

A guest post by Craig Kaufman

It’s always interesting to observe the role of religion in politics, notably now with the Nov. 2 elections heating up. (Voter registration ends Oct. 8 eve in New York and Oct. 18 eve in California, and absentee voting for out-of-towners is also coming up). Beyond recent headlines about covens and the place of Islam, it plays out for every candidate in the glare of the 24/7 media cycle. And the more we hear, the more unlikely it seems we get to hear much that is humble or open.

So it was unexpected to see a big online splash about outspoken California Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown not answering a “religion question.” He’s one politician who seems never to fail to answer such questions and who has often brought them up himself. Like him or not, one can appreciate that at least he speaks out, whether about his years in the seminary or his doing Zen retreats. The video in question does open with his talking in terms of religious responsibility and the values of social justice he learned from having held seminarian vows. But at the last moment, as he is being pushed by handlers into a car, he quietly replies to a reporter’s asking if he still meditates that “that’s not something I care to discuss.”

One must wonder, if Jerry Brown (who has also stated that at 72 he has less to lose by being frank) must curtail such discussions, then how can we keep these topics in the public sphere?  He knows it will hurt his chances to win a tight race to run the world’s eighth largest economy –yet it seems unfortunate, for him and for us.

Another angle on this issue is the New York race for Attorney General, a campaign that is all about showing that one possesses the tough-guy chops to be “Wall Street’s Sheriff.” State Senator Eric Schneiderman is running, and I have noticed that whether on the campaign trail (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ux1MoS5N6Ig) or debating in recent years (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gy_6fEwErUQ and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zc1lj-QKNwg&feature=related), he seems to balance discussions of law and crime with a manner of speaking that sounds neither angry nor like he’s trying to score points. I’m glad to hear something that doesn’t sound like typical politician-speak — I’ve worked with a number of politicians — but I wonder why it sounds almost odd to hear. Perhaps what’s odd is that we are now used to hearing candidates take down other candidates. It’s hard to remember that people supposedly run for office to demonstrate to us that they can build things up, and that they can work with other officials (which ought to include the ability to speak proactively and honestly even about those whom they are debating).

This is no linear topic. Bobby Kennedy (another Attorney General) was always considered a tough guy, and yet his manner of speaking was often surprisingly not angry or noisy. When George W. Bush ran for president, he put the word “compassion” into the heart of the debate. And no discussion of such issues would be complete without mentioning Barack Obama’s campaign. My own bias is that beyond supporting the aforementioned candidates, I find it quite rare that we even have candidates like them running this year. So instead of just encouraging others to help those two, I would also ask people to share their own lists of current leaders and candidates who are wise and courageous, whose values they support and why.

Perhaps if we can identify enough such leaders, regardless of party and policy, the equation may change — to the point that our candidates and officials don’t feel pressured to package their values amid the complexities of surviving politically.

Craig Kaufman is on the Khyentse Foundation Education Programs committee and has managed statewide political campaigns. He founded an educational non-profit in New York and has been active in writing and editorial work, notably regarding innovative social action methods. He is putting his time into trying to elect Jerry Brown and Eric Schneiderman.

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