As we citizens absorb the dramatic close of the Iowa caucuses and the Democratic spotlight shifts to New Hampshire, we scarcely have time to catch our breath, and, indeed, it will be thus almost without surcease until the presidential vote is counted in November -- nine solid months of politics.

There will be moments in those months when our attention will be drawn to events that seem to be divorced from politics. Don't let them fool you! Almost every important pronouncement defending old policies or projecting new programs that comes out of the White House will have been studied, restudied, vetted and re-vetted to assess its effect on the November election.

And, with considerably less centralized control, so will those statements from the Democratic side -- a flood of proposals from presidential, congressional and gubernatorial candidates and their supporters.

If we, the voters, react as the people have in most of our past elections, there will be a not-inconsiderable amount of grousing over the performance of our politicians. Their speeches, their claims, their support for the like-minded and their criticisms of the opposition -- all of it will be dismissed by the most popular of all the election-year slogans: "It's just a bunch of politics." Or the parallel: "They're just a bunch of politicians" -- pejoratives that suggest insincerity, dishonesty, campaign promises glibly made and broken, and outright corruption.

The public sees politicians as "deal-makers," to be contrasted with men and women of principle and integrity. (Some of the recent revelations of chicanery in the halls of finance, industry and commerce might have considerably diluted that contrast.)

Nonetheless, there are still the politicians who seek to wear another banner. Note the candidates for Congress or even the presidency who run against "Washington" even as they work desperately to reside there.

Just a few years ago, some Republicans, then out of power, tried to sell the idea that politicians should not be "professionals" -- that is, they should not make office-holding a lifetime business. Their amateur status would be forced upon them by the imposition of a limitation on the number of years they could serve.

The evangelists of term limits scoffed at assertions that experience in office could be something of value. Or they did until they took over -- when, almost overnight, the issue disappeared.

Keeping an eye on the ethics of our politicians is a good idea, but politician-bashing can be vastly overdone. In recent years, it has fed not just a healthy skepticism on the part of voters, but has discouraged participation in the political process by good, talented people and contributed to abysmally low voter turnouts. And at the heart of it is a fundamental misconception that the practice of politics reveals some kind of character flaw.

In fact, politics is what we call the democratic process, and politicians are its working parts. The congressional representatives, senators and presidents we elect represent a disparate and often fractious people. The very nature of their responsibilities requires compromising, deal-making and the surrender of campaign promises rashly made.

Franklin Roosevelt was a master politician. He was a leader of great strength of principle, but he also knew how and when to compromise. He was the most successful president of the 20th century.

Richard Nixon, the fiercely anti-communist Republican, knew how to apply both strength and compromise to achieve detente with the Soviet Union and the opening to China -- towering achievements of his presidency.

The single most important piece of civil-rights legislation in a century -- the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- was the work of one of the great "wheeler-dealers" in American political history -- Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose motto justifying compromise was "go along to get along."

In reality, most political officeholders are decent, patriotic Americans who work long, hard hours to serve the interests of their constituents and those of the nation as a whole. And most important, they are critical to the functioning of this democracy.


Write to Walter Cronkite c/o King Features Syndicate, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019, or e-mail him at mail(at)cronkitecolumn.com.

(c) 2004 Walter Cronkite

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