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THE POST-ELECTION, BETTER-LUCK-NEXT-TIME REPORT : Where Is Mr. Smith Now That We Need Him? : Ten Americans Who Should Run for Public Office

November 11, 1990|RONALD BROWNSTEIN and NINA J. EASTON | Ronald Brownstein is a Times political writer. Nina J. Easton writes for The Times ' Calendar section

Break out the champagne.

That's the way many Americans feel now that they have two years to recover before the President, members of Congress and hordes of state legislators next ask for their votes. And why not? This was a year filled with dreary campaigns between candidates who seemed incapable of rising above the muck of trivial personal attacks. Just weeks before the election in Texas, after both gubernatorial contenders had spent millions selling themselves and disparaging each other, nearly half of those surveyed told Gallup that they wished they could vote for "none of the above."

So it was in many states. Millions of Americans ignored the campaign, and those who tuned in seemed to spend much of the fall shaking their fists at TV screens. Their anger broke through the initial inertia in unpredictable geysers of discontent, propelling everything from efforts in some states to limit the terms of legislators--a populist shiver likely to reach seismic force in 1992--to the quicksilver candidacies of outsiders as diverse and unlikely as Boston University president John R. Silber in Massachusetts and Louisiana state Rep. David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan.

Why are people so turned off by government? Pick a reason: Corruption, incompetence, paralysis and vituperative campaigns all have taken their toll. But conversations with voters suggest that, out of the multitude of reasons for alienation, none is more powerful than the growing conviction that government is controlled by a professional class of politicians isolated and distant from the concerns of ordinary Americans.

That characterization is unfair to many of the men and women serving in Washington, but it contains a unnerving kernel of truth. Congress is distressingly homogenous, a club with members who don't need mirrors to see their reflection every day.

That doesn't have to be. Before another dispiriting election commences, it may be time for everyone involved in American politics--the parties that recruit candidates, the fund-raisers who bankroll them, the voters who decide their fates--to open their imaginations and support new leaders who don't fit the traditional definition of a politician.

Economists and sociologists often argue that America's greatest strength is its diversity. Yet we deny that diversity in our political leadership: More than half the population are women, and yet only two women serve in the current U.S. Senate. Blacks make up more than 11% of the population, Latinos and Asians another 10%, and yet no state but Hawaii sends minorities to the Senate. For the past 40 years, about 60% of Senate members have been lawyers; that means lawyers, who comprise only 0.6% of working Americans, are represented in the Senate at 100 times their concentration in the general public.

"You're talking about the political leadership of our national government coming from less than 1% of the population (in income) and in only two categories--lawyers and businessmen," complains activist Ralph Nader (himself a lawyer). From the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, Burton Yale Pines, senior vice president of the conservative Washington-based Heritage Foundation, agrees: "I've got nothing against lawyers, but we shouldn't be governed by a cabal of lawyers."

We could certainly draw inspiration from the emerging Eastern European democracies: In Poland, the prime minister is a journalist, and the head of the Solidarity caucus in Parliament is a physicist. In Lithuania, the president is a musicologist and the prime minister an economist. Writers Vaclav Havel and Arpad Goncz are the presidents of Czechoslovakia and Hungary, respectively. In Bulgaria, the president is a philosopher, and not the kind who quotes the Farmer's Almanac or Yogi Berra, either.

What follows is a first step toward envisioning a comparable renewal in American democracy: a list of 10 people who could energize our public life if elected to the Senate, our best forum short of the White House for advancing ideas and shaping the national agenda. None are politicians by profession. But each of these women and men--and others like them in the arts, science, community organizations, business and academia--has the skills to shake up Congress. Unlikely as it may be that any of them would run for public office, they all illustrate our potential for reaching outside the usual political channels for leaders that more accurately reflect the nation's kaleidoscope of talents.

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