AT a time when public officials are held in contempt by the public it would seem foolhardy to say a word for the politicians. With the Durenbergers, Franks, and Barrys of this world telling of living less than exemplary lives, it seems no time to say something positive about public figures. Yet ... I've had an up-front seat on America's political show for many years now, and I remain convinced that politicians are, for the most part, quite an able and (yes, I'll say it!) ethical lot. Indeed, when it comes to character, I've found our public servants several cuts above their critics.
Certainly, they are driven by ambition. And too often they unfairly assail opponents or make promises they cannot keep.
As I write this I am seething over the amount of financial help the beer political action committees provide for reelection campaigns. Little wonder - as Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy points out - that the beer companies have been successful in persuading Congress to keep taxes low on their product.
Too often, evidence links the influence of heavy contributors to campaign coffers and the way public officials vote when those contributors' interests are at stake.
Fortunately, political careers still attract many of America's best and brightest. It's amazing they are willing to take all the abuse they know they will receive - particularly those who are running for higher state and national offices.
We crucify some of those who seek the presidency. Take Michael Dukakis, a man who looked able at convention time in 1988 but who was somehow transformed into something else by the election result.
No doubt, he was kicked around by George Bush. And he wasn't a very good campaigner. But it's Dukakis's fellow Democrats who treat him with scorn. He had the audacity to lose - badly!
So politics has left a man once picked by other governors as their best lying bedraggled on the side of the road - a governor made ineffective by the way he has been treated by the system. I feel sorry for Michael Dukakis.
I also feel sorry for another defeated Democratic presidential candidate: George McGovern.
I've never known a more decent man in public life than McGovern. He was pushing the country's leading moral issue, saying Vietnam was a war the US had no business being in. He was ahead of his time. And so in the end he lost everywhere except in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.
The Democrats were embarrassed by the defeat. Even now I don't hear any among his party's leaders saying that George McGovern was courageously out in front by ``being right'' on Vietnam.
Nor do they ever say the obvious: That if McGovern had beaten Nixon in 1972, there would have never been a Watergate, a scandal that sent this country through an emotional wringer. A defeated Nixon and the Republicans might have faced problems over the break-in, but it would never have rocked the government the way Watergate did.
It is the whole political process that the public distrusts. ``Politics is the art of the possible'' is a phrase often used by Nixon and borrowed from William Pitt who may have picked it up from the Greeks.
Nixon was talking about the compromises that congressmen and presidents must make to get something done. Obviously, he made a compromise that was terribly wrong when he decided to cover up involvement in the Watergate scandal.
But when the necessary compromises are hammered out - as with the current budget negotiations - they inevitably add to this feeling of public distrust and even anger with the way politicians do business.
So it is a difficult climate for politicians to find their way. Some may be less than honest - or capable. But my finding is that most of them measure up in integrity and are highly competent.