John P. Murtha, the Democratic congressman who died last week, told people that the middle initial P. in his name stood for "power." Not Pennsylvania, his home state. Not people. Not principle.
Power is what the decorated Marine sought for his trademark.
His unabashed quest to acquire and wield that commodity both enhanced and tarnished his legacy.
In that, he has plenty of company. For politicians, the pursuit of power is an occupational hazard.
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Power in and of itself isn't a bad thing. Every officeholder needs some to be effective. The problems start when the acquisition of power overtakes public service as a politician's raison d'etre.
Jenny Sanford, the soon-to-be ex-wife of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, spoke of the phenomenon during a recent interview with the magazine Marie Claire. She's speaking freely about her failed marriage as she promotes her new book, "Staying True."
"When I worked on Wall Street, I saw plenty of men whose egos grew as their income rose...," Sanford said. "Nothing I saw there, however, compares to the immediate and transformational stroking that comes as soon as one is elected to a high public office, as with a congressman. It is easy for our nation's political leaders to become insulated from the realities of everyday life and its attendant responsibilities."
Politicians can shield themselves from the worst effects of power intoxication by passing laws that curb the influence of lobbyists, limit the acceptance of gifts and put a lid on campaign contributions. It's the equivalent of cutting yourself off at the corner bar. Not foolproof, but it can help.
The rest of us can help by reminding officeholders that, stripped of their titles — congressman, councilwoman, whatever — they're pretty much like everybody else. That fact becomes abundantly clear when a power trip goes wrong.
Sanford, whose political career runs through Congress and the South Carolina capitol and may have put him on the presidential campaign trail, now finds his personal failings bared in his estranged wife's memoir.
And John "Power" Murtha? His political career was still going strong. But something went wrong when the 77-year-old congressman's gall bladder was removed on Jan. 28. He died of intestinal injuries a week ago — an untimely, likely preventable, but very human ending.
KANSAS CITY STAR