Deserving of respect
As of this writing, it's still not known why Bill Gwatney was shot to death, and it may never be. The murderer was himself killed exchanging fire with police.
But it's hard to believe that the tragedy was not in some way connected to Gwatney's long public service, first as a state senator, then as chairman of the Democratic State Committee, in whose office the gunman sought him out. Since his death a week ago, Gwatney has been repeatedly eulogized for his devotion to the public interest, as well as for his business career and his personal qualities. If we use this occasion to praise others of the much-maligned class of “politicians,” to which Gwatney belonged, he surely wouldn't disapprove.
Harry Truman said that a statesman is only a dead politician. We seldom remark on their statesmanlike aspect while they are still among us, running for and holding public office, and operating the political parties on which our system of government depends. (No matter how often and how loudly a person claims that he votes for the man and not the party, he votes for the party too. Every politician must be accountable to those whose beliefs he claims to share.)
We remember a young reporter covering his first statewide political campaign years ago. Almost the first thing he learned was that running for office is hard work, and he knew then he'd never be uncivil to a political candidate seeking his vote. Whatever their private reasons for running, politicians are doing something that must be done, and that's true whether the office they seek is elective or appointive.
Once in office, some politicians will prove to be bad public servants — grifters, bigots, puppets of special interests — and some will prove just the opposite. They should not be condemned as a class, though some critics do so, including some journalists. It is easier to say all politicians are crooks than to separate the crooked from the honest.
What they all are is people, with their own distinct personalities, their own priorities, to use yet again an overused word. Gov. Mike Beebe, who served with Gwatney in the Senate, said it was an admirable thing in Gwatney that although born into comfort himself, he could sympathize with people who weren't. What another acquaintance remembers is that in a chamber full of people who were solemnly sympathetic pretty much fulltime, Gwatney was one who'd occasionally note, while the Senate was mired in deliberation, that the subject under consideration was certainly complicated, and boring to boot. Anyone who's ever sat through an endless committee meeting knows how refreshing that can be.
We're lucky to have the Bill Gwatneys. We don't need to wait until they die to appreciate them.