Like many of you watching the circus on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, I am bemused. If this is truly democracy, paralysis in the halls of power based on the views of a small extremist minority, put us in deep peril. The ability to compromise and then to get on with the work of governance seems the task at hand, but again we seem incapable of doing it.
I found a letter addressed to me from Senator Robert F. Kennedy only five months before he was tragically assassinated in Los Angeles after he won the Democratic primary in California. I had told my father that I intended to go into politics. He wrote to a Kennedy aide, Dan Fenn, who asked the Senator to write to me.
Senator Kennedy told me to “start now to prepare yourself for a career in public service. Education is of the greatest importance, and the special study of history, economics, and political systems...In addition involvement in local political affairs can be of great benefit.” He added, “Lord Tweedsmuir wrote, ‘Public life is the crown of a career…it is the worthiest ambition. Politics is still the greatest and most honorable adventure.’”
He sent along a speech that he had given at University of California, Berkeley two years before. The Berkeley campus had been the center of the free speech movement and had massive anti-Vietnam War protests. Senator Kennedy said, “You are the first college to become a major political issue since King George III attacked Harvard for being the center of the rebellion. I am glad of Berkeley and glad to be here with you…I welcome the passionate concern with the condition and future of the American nation which can be found on this campus. The future will belong to those who see that wisdom can only emerge from the clash of contending views…This is the seminal spirit of American democracy. It is not enough to allow dissent. We must demand it.”
Ultimately, I chose a different path, to go into business instead of politics. I do not regret that decision in the least. With the release of the Edelman Trust Barometer 2023 in two weeks in Davos, I will have the bully pulpit again, to tell business that it must continue to lead on societal issues, that CEOs must not back down in the face of political pressure and that business must work with government because it is the most impactful way to effect change. We will give data that will provide air cover to those that are nervous by the experience of Disney or by the saber-rattling of state pension funds.
The need for public service has never been greater. It falls to all of us to encourage and support young people to get involved, and I am proud of the work we have done with organizations like the Atlantic Council, and many others, to drive civil society engagement. We must aspire for better political discussions, and work to co-create solutions between business and government for the challenges of tomorrow.
Richard Edelman is CEO.