In my opinion, no movie has had more of an impact on politics and our political culture than the 1972, all-time classic, The Godfather. There are so many adages, clever comments and life lessons that can be listed for discussion and dissected. However, no other line is more poignant and hypocritically befitting of our business than “It’s not personal, it’s strictly business” – the biggest lie in politics.
In the movie, the Corleone consigliere, Tom Hagen, after coming to terms with the assassination attempt on the Don and subsequent attacks on others including Michael, tries to caution a revenge-seeking Michael that what he is contemplating is driven by emotion rather than clear thinking. It is Michael, sporting a broken jaw, who uses this line to justify his plan.
Let’s get something straight: That was a fictional movie about a fictional family; in politics, while many things are fictional, this isn’t – EVERYTHING is personal.
Let’s go to the videotape:
While running for office, you put your life on hold; you take a lot of time away from family and other parts of your life; you ask registered voters to sign your petition; you knock on doors; you raise money; you press the flesh; you push yourself mentally and physically to near exhaustion and put yourself out there for the public to either accept or reject. That seems pretty personal.
Next, your opponent, or the opposing party, investigates you; reviews every public statement that you have made; views your social media; talks to friends and your enemies alike; dumpster dives for any morsel of opposition research; views every vote you cast including the first one when you were still in high school; scans for pictures on the internet with some potentially embarrassing character; vets your fundraising dollars and then cobbles all this together to destroy or humiliate you in an attempt to ensure you lose the election. Sound personal yet?
You finally cross the finish line a winner and exhale. After which, and this is always fascinating to watch, akin to feeding time at the zoo, your opponents slowly make their way over to congratulate you and say – “It wasn’t personal.” Those moments are ones to savor.
Advice (As given to me by Senator William Gormley [who never took his own advice]): Be a gracious winner. I swallowed hard after some of my wins and did just that, never forgetting and always growing the “black list” (kidding of course). Don’t bother reviewing every donation on your opponent’s ELECs and vow to exact revenge on each and every “co-conspirator.” What is the point? And don’t waste your time vowing to punish the political operatives and consultants who made that horrible mail piece about you that your family saw or the “hate mail” described as a “contrast” piece about your foreign-born mother. Be the bigger person and push on. Remember: “It’s not personal, it’s strictly business.”
Let’s go further, you are a state legislator on a crusade to push a monumental bill or helping a particular cause or pushing a candidate for an appointment/job/judgeship and for reasons unknown a political force stops it all – bringing all of your hard work, planning and efforts to a halt. Once you get around to forensically dissecting the reason for the derailment, and you confront the agitator, you hear the response “it’s not personal, it’s strictly business.”
It isn’t personal?
Tell that to the left behind judicial candidate who has put his or her life on hold as they approached their dream job and are now crushed – personal and professionally.
Tell that to the not for profit interest group whose funding was just shut down because you couldn’t pass that bill.
Tell that to the qualified appointee who simply wanted to serve on a professional board and was denied for unrelated courtesies.
Tell that to the failed candidate who has lost their day job and credibility due to unsubstantiated and vicious campaign mail.
From the moment, you decide to be a candidate to the moment you take your oath of office; your life is not your own. Everything, and most times everyone, takes a back seat. When you decide to champion a cause or issue you immerse yourself in every nitty-gritty detail, meet with various stakeholders, massage and cajole enough personalities to get a palatable piece of legislation. Once again, much like when you were a candidate, everything takes a back seat. Your life’s mission becomes rooted in the success of this issue.
Whether it be the win-at-all-costs mentality of your opponents, the anonymous internet haters, political bosses who want to silence you, the opposition party who can’t handle you, members of your own party who resent you, the outside groups hell-bent on defeating you or your issue – the business of politics and its many entanglements is personal.
I love the movie The Godfather and have given life to many of its memorable lines but one, because like the line in question – it’s a lie.
Sometimes in politics, it’s not business – it’s personal.