A few weeks ago I received an email asking for some advice. I had never met the sender but we have quite a few mutual friends. She had recently become very involved in politics at the grass roots level, one of those drawn to action as part of the TEA Party movement.
Like many seeing politics from the inside for the first time, she was becoming disillusioned. Politics from the inside is a very different game. The calls to nobility, civic responsibility, and duty to country are often ploys of insiders intent on little more than building a personal power base and or protecting a fiefdom. It's why many like her are involved in politics only for a little while. It's why so many no longer participate in politics aside from voting.
I wish I had been armed with Jim Galloway's Sunday column before I had responded to her. Jim writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution covering the "Political Insider" beat. A consummate professional, Jim usually sticks to matters directly related to his title subject.
Sunday, however, he dealt with a photo on display in his office.
In his online blog, Jim had earlier in the week wondered out loud what to do with a picture of Lance Armstrong, grinding out a climb during a training run in for the 2004 Tour de Georgia. Alongside Armstrong is an 11-year-old boy, draped in the American flag, his face in tortured anguish as he willed Armstrong up the hill. It's a powerful shot.
Except that the power being used to push the bicycle has largely been declared a hoax, as Armstrong has now joined the long list of larger-than-life sports figures who are actually very small. Armstrong has now been outed by virtually all who rode with him not only as someone who participated in a doping program, but as the person who originated, coordinated, and enforced the program with his teammates.
While most advised Jim that it was time to dump the photo, a late opinion came in from 19-year-old Samuel Douglas. In 2004, he was an 11-year-old, draped in the flag, willing Lance Armstrong up a hill.
Douglas is now president of the cycling team at Furman University, and discussed with Galloway the importance of the inspiration of Armstrong, not only as a cyclist but as someone who put his efforts and celebrity into other causes. "Cancer doesn't care that Lance doped," he said.
In politics, much like the sporting world, we create heroes that inspire us to action. All too often, there is a fall from grace. We put our leaders on pedestals and then recount our tales of them, making them more grand each time. Most of these guys are like you and me. They have their strengths but also have their weaknesses. In public life we generally hide those as long as we can. Too often, when exposed, they deflate a bubble that we helped build, but the candidate was certainly a co-conspirator in the tale.
Upon news of these failings it is generally up to the candidate and the voters to decide that person's future. We cannot presume perfection nor cast it upon others for our own benefit.
But when looking at the political system as a whole, we have to also occasionally remind ourselves that politics is by the people, for the people. People in groups tend to be less perfect than imperfect individuals. It is, unfortunately, human nature.
Many of us enter politics as the 11-year-old boy, draped in the flag. We cheer on our heroes as they climb the hill.
Along the way, we often find out our heroes weren't perfect, and some were downright bad people. It is then that we have to decide if our cheering was all an illusion, or if we were actually inspired to fulfill our civic duty - to do our part to make this country a better place.
Samuel Douglas understands the difference between illusions and reality, and he continues to ride. I wish I had his example a few weeks ago for my friends' friend. It would have been much easier to tell her this story and suggest she keep pedaling.
Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.