Special to 0-A News
from Walter Albritton
for Sunday, Oct. 17, 1999

Politicians and preachers have a lot in common

Our society tends to reward both politicians and preachers who are skillful at fence-straddling. This is the art of appearing to support both sides of an issue so that neither side is offended.

Those who are good at doing this use both hands when speaking. They say, "On the one hand, blah, blah, blah, and on the other hand, blah, blah, blah." The air is so clouded with platitudes that the hearer usually regrets having brought up the subject.

The odd thing is that the fence-straddlers seldom have disagreements with the people they are serving. Instead they have conversations which often leave people puzzled about what side the fence-straddlers are on.

The fence-straddlers walk away from these discussions with a sigh of relief if no one has challenged them to take a stand. This is because the last thing they want to do is to offend someone by expressing a strong conviction about an issue. They have embraced the "Rodney King Attitude": "Why can't we all just get along?"

Take a strong stand as a politician or a preacher and you do face certain risks. One is that you can easily put your foot in your mouth. This happens when any of us manage to talk without thinking clearly, or when we think that we have to have an opinion about every subject.

Sometimes it is best to wait a day or two before answering a question, or simply say, "I don't know but I will look into the matter and get back to you." Speak out forcefully on an issue and you soon reveal not only your convictions but your ignorance as well. And there are subjects on which all of us are painfully ignorant. None of us knows everything about anything.

Another risk you take when taking a stand is that people will disagree with you and not always agreeably. Some persons will disagree with you vigorously, even to the point of ending friendship with you and criticizing you. This can be very painful for all of us want others to respect us even when we disagree on certain issues.

This brings me to an old story which may shed light on how we are to handle criticism when it comes out way. Even if you have heard this story, stay with me to the end.

It seems an old mule fell into a farmer's well. Hearing the mule braying, the farmer discovered his plight, and soon concluded that it would be impossible to retrieve the mule from the well. Both the mule and the well were old and not worth saving. So the farmer decided the most merciful thing he could do would be to throw dirt on the mule and bury him in the well.

But a strange thing happened. As each shovelful of dirt fell on the old mule's back, he shook it off, allowing it to get under his feet. It was not long before the old mule, exhausted and dirty, was able to walk right out of that well. What was intended to bury him actually blessed him, all because of his attitude in the face of adversity.

Politicians and preachers can learn a valuable lesson from that old mule. When we take a courageous stand for what we believe is right, we risk having the opposition throw dirt on us. But we can be wise enough to throw the dirt off ourselves, stand on it, and walk out of the criticism with a positive attitude.

Personally I would rather deal with a little dirt now and then than to spend my life straddling fences. Having grown up on a farm I know how dangerous fence-straddling can be. But it is a choice each of us must make, and for politicians and preachers, it is seldom an easy decision.