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Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
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February 17, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 44

  To succeed or to fail and how to tell one from the other
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

"Try not to become a person of success," Albert Einstein wrote once, "but rather try to become a person of value." Whether he knew it or not, Einstein might well have been talking about the game of American politics where success and value get interminably confused. Here the difference between success and failure often rests on the flimsiest of things.

Now, it seems to have happened again. For Ed Muskie it was tears over insults to his wife that were his downfall. For Richard Nixon it was facial stubble where TV makeup should have been. For Gary Hart it was a fling on a boat.

For Howard Dean, too, a single incident recorded on TV cameras at the height of a political rally has apparently ended his candidacy for the presidency in mid flight. This time it was a victory yell at a post-primary party with hundreds of young campaign workers and supporters who never even heard the sound inside the room. Dean said later that he was trying to keep up the spirits of the young people who had worked so hard for his campaign and were so disheartened by a loss they never expected. But to the older voters who saw the piece -- it was replayed on television 133 times in the next few days out of context and out of proportion -- it was apparently read as a lack of self-control, a clearly unpresidential trait. And that in a country where going to war without "clear and certain danger" is on the verge of becoming a national virtue.

The point has been made: In the United States, thanks to deftly edited film clips, political candidates for the highest seat in U.S. government can lose before they even begin to run.

Forever linked to single incidents, most of them only remotely connected to their political experience or competence, they routinely fall to the prying eyes of television cameras. Others, , sensing the danger of cameras, they avoid them at all costs. Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, never permitted himself to be photographed in a wheelchair, fearing it would detract from his image as a strong leader. Bill Clinton didn't want to be photographed eating fast food hamburgers. Al Gore couldn't shake the buttoned-down, dry-wall look.

Howard Dean, on the other hand, trusted truth to take him where only image can go.

The temptation is to think of him, if we think of him ever again at all, as a failed candidate. I wonder. It may all depend on how we define either success or failure.

"Not failure, but low aim," James Russell Lowe said, "is crime." And history will surely record that Howard Dean aimed high. In fact, when it's all said and done, it may be what Dean succeeded in doing that becomes the very fulcrum on which the success of this entire election depends.

Dean succeeded at three things:

In the first place, he returned courage to politics.

In the second place, his apolitical politics magnetized the young. They came into the political arena in droves.

In the third place, he instituted Internet fundraising that released the support of average people and threatened the controlling influence of special interest groups.

What's more, Dean made it abundantly clear that one depends on the other, that individuals care as much about truth as special interests care about influence, and that the interest of young people in politics depends on the willingness of candidates to proclaim an apparently unpopular position, even in politics.

When the entire U.S. congress -- with Sen. Robert Byrd the only notable exception -- allowed the President of the United States to invade another country on the slimmest of evidence over a decade old, Howard Dean opposed the war in Iraq in public, a decidedly unpolitical move.

Most of all, he did it when it was least popular and most politically dangerous.

He did it on the brink of an election in a country where "not to get behind the president" in a time of war -- even when we start the war -- is tantamount to political suicide.

When every other major parliament in the world debated the wisdom of the move, while the entire U.S. Congress rolled over and played politically dead, Howard Dean said a truth based on the oldest of U.S. principles.

And the young and financially disenfranchised heard it and decided that truth in politics was a good thing to try for a change.

So, did Howard Dean's campaign for president really fail?

It may be far too soon too tell, of course, but one thing for sure, there are a lot of new young people involved in the electoral process. Listening for truth. Provoking its presence.

In fact, a lot of candidates have finally gotten around to saying what people feared right from the beginning and, the polls say, believe now: that to launch a highly questionable war in the face of clear disapproval of the international community was at best unwise, if not immoral.

"I would rather lose," Woodrow Wilson said, "in a cause that will some day win, than win in a cause that will some day lose!"

From where I stand, a television clip of a cheering candidate at a losing primary does not tell the whole story about the difference between success and failure. It may all depend on what you stake your claim to success.

That decision, it seems to me, started at the foot of the cross and, we say during Lent, leads back there to this day for those who care more for value than for success.

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