The seduction of power

When I was president of the Catholic Press Association of the United States, I attended a luncheon for journalists in Washington in honor of the former British Prime Minister James Callaghan (1912-2005).

He headed the British government from 1976 to 1979. Before and after serving as prime minister, he had held other high public positions. Not long before this luncheon, Queen Elizabeth II had recognized his public service by naming him a baron and by giving him Britain's prestigious Knighthood of the Garter.

At lunch, in a long "off-the-record" discussion, Callaghan told us about how possessing power affects a person and how alluring possessing power can be.

Someone asked him if being prime minister was worth enduring the loud criticism of his handling of the Cold War and chronic inflation.

He answered by saying that while he was in office, he walked each day through the prime minister's residence at 10 Downing St. in London. On the walls were portraits of his predecessors. Some former leaders are virtually forgotten. Others, such as Benjamin Disraeli, David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, are regarded as great statesman.

However, each in his time held the power to control British society and to shape its future. For Callaghan, realizing that this power belonged to him was exhilarating beyond description. It was worth all the effort of campaigning and solidifying support.

Several years after this luncheon, I arrived in London early on the morning after Tony Blair's Labor Party first election victory. I watched on television as Blair's automobile took him to the palace to receive his appointment as prime minister from the queen.

By chance, Callaghan was the political analyst for the broadcast. "Lord Callaghan," the commentator said, "do you remember the day when you went to receive the queen's appointment as prime minister?"

"Do I remember?" he asked rhetorically. "I could never forget the most thrilling moment of my life!"

Here at home, the presidential election is well under way, and already we have heard candidates, their supporters and their opponents often speak with some emotion. It gets to be annoying, at least for me, when they move from political issues, such as the economy or safeguarding the country from terrorists, to personal shortcomings -- real or suggested -- of their opponents. But their feelings reveal how much they want to be elected.

All my life I have revered public service as a noble undertaking, and I am glad that in our process of electing public officials we can -- and do -- have a vigorous, open debate.

This being said, and good qualities of candidates being admitted, voters always should realize that the power of high office is a great attraction. It need not necessarily be a bad thing. Many candidates want the power of high office to better life in our country.

But possessing the power of high office can be a most compelling ambition. It affects not just candidates but also those who possibly will assist the candidates if elections go their way.

All of this means that campaigns are serious business. Campaigns spend untold amounts just to determine the fears and the hopes of voters. Then strategies are developed to meet these fears or hopes. At root this is not bad; it is what representative democracy is about.

I would never urge anyone to adopt a cynical attitude about campaigns and candidates. Genuine patriotism and selflessness have moved many of our leaders. Vigorous partisanship has served our country's interests as often as not.

However, all this being said, as we enter the decisive time of this election cycle, we might remind ourselves that the lure of power, even for noble reasons, is very strong. Modern campaigning is scientific and complex. Be idealistic, but be alert.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is the associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.