The best candidates are not always the ones that get elected
At the outset of his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy introduced a man he considered the epitome of a great politician. He referred to this man as ‘the father of our country.’ That man was George Washington, and Senator Kennedy addressed the crowd by asking them to imagine what Washington would think of the nation he had led through the American Revolution. He then painted Washington as a devoutly religious gentleman with a tender heart, a sharp mind and a sense of fair play.
He concluded by saying that if Thomas Jefferson could describe Washington in these terms, it was proof that Washington was true ‘the father of our country.’ Kennedy felt that George Washington embodied all the qualities that constitute a great politician.
A great politician respects the public’s intelligence and maintains a good relationship with the press. As important as effective communication is to maintain public support, a good relationship with the media is also essential for political success.
Throughout history, many politicians have had contentious relationships with the press. Unsurprisingly, those who picked fights with the media had rocky relationships during their time in office. That is why astute politicians are more willing to take abuse from most sources, so long as they can maintain cordial relations with them. To maintain good relationships with the press, one must have faith in their ideas and be willing to stand firm when journalists question those ideas.
Good politicians must have the moral integrity necessary to keep their promises and remain popular despite adversity. During his second presidential campaign in 1832, Andrew Jackson acknowledged that he had cheated his supporters out of millions of dollars by withholding federal funds from Columbia College so he could purchase guns for his army during the War of 1812.
When Jackson assumed office in 1837, however, he withheld additional funding from Columbia College instead of granting it as promised during his campaign against Martin Van Buren. Many people criticized this duplicity- but Jackson stood firm in defense.
His unpopular action was because he believed it would benefit the State of Louisiana after purchasing it from the Louisiana Purchase Company. In light of this history, it seems apparent that Kennedy was correct when he stated that a great politician must possess moral integrity that will allow them to remain popular despite doing right by those who oppose him.
There are no hard-and-fast rules regarding being considered a great politician; each case is unique and requires different personal qualities to succeed. However, based on what other notable politicians consider hallmarks of greatness- such as Kennedy’s list above- it seems evident that a person must possess intelligence, communication skills, and character to be regarded as a great politician by any definition.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy (center) poses with his brothers U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (left) and President John F. Kennedy (right) in the West Wing Colonnade outside the Oval Office, White House, Washington, D.C. 28 August 1963
Photographer: Stoughton, Cecil W. Courtesy: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, MA. ST-398-3-63