But it was worth it. I was honored to serve democracy by standing for public office. I learned a lot.
Lesson One: Democracy is alive and well in America. Throughout the campaign I sensed that we were participating in the sort of robust political debate that the Founding Fathers had envisioned. They invented a system that permits access to any candidate who can get the people behind him—and I enjoyed good support. They expected the electorate to be polarized—and it was. They expected candidates to define issues sharply—and we did. More important, they expected that the voice of the people would be this nation's strongest expression—and I feel strongly that my race proves them right.
To those who dismay of democracy's messiness and uncertainty, I have a simple recommendation: go do it better. The process is there. It works.
Lesson Two: People are great. I met some wonderful folks. Yes, there were some poltroons, too. But mostly just Americans seeking a better future and caring enough about their community to work for it. You want to see genuine, raw leadership? Witness ministers of traditional black churches dealing daily with life-and-death issues. You want to see people who take risks and work hard for the people around them? Look at the community involvement of business leaders, union officials, health-care professionals, senior citizens, and children's advocates.
And take your blinders off. Clothes, income, property, and position are not the best guides to determine who is a good citizen. You must get past these common markers and see the person to understand why the Founding Fathers placed such trust in the people. I tried to do that, and I treasure the good people I met. I was deeply impressed by the altruism and civic mindedness of the average citizen.
Lesson Three: National defense is a zero-interest issue. In seven months of active campaigning in a strongly military district, I was asked one question on defense. One! In this post-Cold War time, defense just does not register—from which you can draw your own conclusions. I have; the major one being that people will sense no danger in a greatly reduced defense budget.
Lesson Four: The military has removed itself from American life. My district has a large population of active-duty service members and their families. I did not expect them to be involved in the campaign itself, but I was very surprised to find that they aren't much involved with anything else either. I never saw them anywhere while I was campaigning (and believe me, I covered every ZIP code and every civic-interest group in the district). Military people have chosen to sequester themselves within a military subculture that isolates them from the day-to-day realities of American life and separates them from the people they serve. In America's civilian community, the military is invisible.
This cultural detachment is dangerous. We should worry that the average citizen will pay back the military's indifference and isolation with his own disdain for military matters. And we also should concern ourselves that military leaders having no experience with the day-to-day pull and tug of democracy will be ill equipped to make an effective case for defense preparedness. In this time of no threats, the military probably needs the public more than the public needs the military. The self-imposed separation of the military from the society around it may be the biggest defense issue of all.
Running for public office is an honor and a rare, wonderful experience. I have no regrets. But I sense from my campaign experience that military people have less understanding and probably less appreciation of American democracy than is good for any of the parties involved.
If I found one overriding lesson, it is that the military would benefit if it gave up its isolation and joined the American community.
Captain Byron retired from the Navy in 1993, after 37 years on active duty.