Commentary: Politicians should learn seeking power comes with a price

Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. (Kansas City Star/MCT)
Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. (Kansas City Star/MCT) MCT

John P. Murtha, the Democratic congressman who died last week, told people that the middle initial P. in his name stood for "power."

Not Pennsylvania, his home state.

Not people. Not principle.

Power is what the decorated Marine sought for his trademark. His unabashed quest to acquire and wield that commodity both enhanced and tarnished his legacy.

In that, he has plenty of company. For politicians, the pursuit of power is an occupational hazard.

Power in and of itself isn't a bad thing. Every officeholder needs some to be effective. The problems start when the acquisition of power overtakes public service as a politician's raison d'etre.

Look at Rod Jetton, the immediate past speaker of the Missouri House.

The son of a Baptist preacher assumed the leadership position at age 37. In his community, Marble Hill, Mo., he was a real estate agent and part-time state legislator. A fairly ordinary guy. Inside the capitol in Jefferson City, however, Jetton was a big deal.

He feasted on lobbyists' dollars, raked in campaign contributions and dealt brutally with opponents.

Passing good legislation took a back seat to deal making. Jetton began a consulting business, with legislative colleagues as clients. His reasons for pushing or opposing certain legislation were baffling — until you looked at the contributions being paid to the speaker and legislative committees that he controlled.

Power, for politicians, is like liquor. Some can handle it just fine. Others quickly become intoxicated.

Closer to home, in Kansas City, we've seen council members tumble off the wagon. A few spent some time in prison drying out.

Jenny Sanford, the soon-to-be ex-wife of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, spoke of the phenomenon during a recent interview with the magazine Marie Claire. She's speaking freely about her failed marriage as she promotes her new book, "Staying True."

"When I worked on Wall Street, I saw plenty of men whose egos grew as their income rose…," Sanford said. "Nothing I saw there, however, compares to the immediate and transformational stroking that comes as soon as one is elected to a high public office, as with a congressman. It is easy for our nation's political leaders to become insulated from the realities of everyday life and its attendant responsibilities."

Politicians can shield themselves from the worst effects of power intoxication by passing laws that curb the influence of lobbyists, limit the acceptance of gifts and put a lid on campaign contributions. It's the equivalent of cutting yourself off at the corner bar. Not foolproof, but it can help.

The rest of us can help by reminding officeholders that, stripped of their titles — congressman, councilwoman, whatever — they're pretty much like everybody else. That fact becomes abundantly clear when a power trip goes wrong.

Sanford, whose political career runs through Congress and the South Carolina capitol and may have put him on the presidential campaign trail, now finds his personal failings bared in his estranged wife’s memoir.

Jetton's political career is over; his consulting business is shuttered; and the FBI is talking to his former colleagues about him.

"I got an application in to drive a garbage truck, and I got turned down to sell appliances," Jetton, now 42, told St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Tony Messenger. "I've got no reputation. I have no money. I've got nothing."

And John "Power" Murtha? His political career was still going strong. But something went wrong when the 77-year-old Congressman's gall bladder was removed on Jan. 28. He died of intestinal injuries on Monday — an untimely, likely preventable, but very human ending.