The ivy-trimmed revolving door
Politicians and academics often switch places, an exercise which may be prompted by election returns, by receiving ''the call'' from a new administration, or by not receiving ''the call.'' The practice of going through the ivy-trimmed revolving door between government and schools of government is now so common that there is a term for it: ''in and outers.''
After having been an elected official, and most recently, a Fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard, I have come to see that there are some clear differences between the two worlds.
Take the academic panel discussion. Even when there is heated controversy, one only has to nod appreciatively, applaud at the end, and walk out carrying a few new crumbs of food for thought. However momentous the topic - nuclear proliferation, human rights, the state of the economy - there is no requirement to do anything.
No votes, no decisions, no angry constituents.
The divorce between debate and decisionmaking is truly therapeutic for a politician on sabbatical who had long been accustomed to having any temporary reverie about an ''interesting issue'' interrupted by the bang of the gavel, demanding an instant yes or no.
On the other hand, there is some satisfaction in disposing of an issue, rightly or wrongly. Done with it. On to the next question. The staccato pace of the political process does provide a sense of achievement and finality which is seldom experienced in a university setting, where questions often linger without resolution.
In both realms, error is seldom confessed. In politics, one can usually blame the consequences of a bad decision on a prior administration or promote oneself to the status of statesman, calling the opposition mere politicians. To shroud a mistake in academia, one may have to write another book elaborating on the conclusions of the first one.
The adagio pace of the intellectual life has other redeeming qualities. There is physical time and intellectual space to examine issues in depth and explore solutions which reside outside the confining brackets of what is considered politically acceptable. Gone is the fear of instant political death.
One can think, reflect, surmise, and even change one's mind. Pick up ideas and put them down again, like so many pebbles on a beach.
That spirit of intellectual inquiry is difficult to achieve in a political setting where television lights bring perspiration to the brow and every comment must be timed to fit the pace of the evening news.
When facing the public, politicians constantly filter their ideas through a political sieve. How will this affect the environmentalists, labor, management? Sometimes the sieve gets so clogged by political taboos that no new ideas pass through.
Freeing up the spaces to politically hazardous ideas is not only an exciting process; it may even lead to the discovery of practical political solutions. If allowed to breathe the open air of political debate many of these ''awkward notions'' may mature in political respectability. Not to feel the constant tug of political necessity is a luxury found only in academia.
The academic world provides the welcome illusion of an orderly world. There is nothing quite so reassuring as to step into a classroom, see an outline on the blackboard, and hear the professor commence his lecture with, ''The three major causes of the decline of Western civilization are. . . .'' The world is manageable, and, for those 50 minutes, makes sense.
Partly this is due to the fact that academics can be selective and choose the portions of history which are adaptable to rational interpretation. The messy parts can be edited. But primarily the academic world looks sensible because of the historical perspective endemic to the university. All looks rational when explained in retrospect. Academics can figure out why politicians acted as they did after the deed is done. Patterns, trends, philosophies - those merciful mechanisms of order - all emerge.
This sorting-out process seems to apply well enough and has a coherence which we eagerly accept. There is a primeval necessity to superimpose order on the past so that we can face the yet undefined future.
It is the future, of course, which politicians grapple with, and that is why politics is so disorderly. Only history clears away some of the debris.
But it is precisely this contrast that has such a salutary effect. Politicians need to pause long enough to see some order surface from the political flotsam and jetsam. Academics, too, may profit from an excursion into the political fray. The cultural exchange program between them may not only benefit the denizens of these separate shores, but may also help the rest of us who have to deal with the consequences of the academician's thoughts and the politician's deeds.