Ethics Alarms Mail Bag: Rep. Jim Bridenstine and The Duty To Confront

A reader asks…

“John McCain and Paul Ryan have corrected constituents who spout conspiracy theories about the President.  Should this Republican have left this town hall comment unchallenged?”

The incident referenced is on view here:

That’s Oklahoma congressman Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) who listens as a woman says, “Obama is not president, as far as I’m concerned.  He should be executed as an enemy combatant…I can’t tell you, or I can’t say because we are in a public place, this guy is a criminal,” and then answers by saying that “everybody knows the lawlessness of this president,” without addressing her more outrageous assertions. “The only way I see out of this is to overwhelmingly change the Senate, so that we can then impeach the SOB,” another woman says. “You know, you look so sweet…” says Bridenstine, deflecting.

The second woman’s statement is crude, but doesn’t require a response. Advocating impeachment may be a foolish position, but it is not one that demands a rebuke. “SOB”? I would favor a politician who told a supporter that such personal attacks undermine productive civic discourse, and that the office of the President demands more courteous treatment, but I don’t think such a response is ethically mandatory. The first woman’s statement, however, should have been rejected on the spot, and any criticism that Bridenstine receives for not doing so is well deserved.

I have written about the duty to confront objectionable statements in such contexts before, most recently in 2011, when the entire Republican presidential field failed twice to reject offensive, mean-spirited or hateful reactions from the friendly crowd watching their debates:

“The failure of any one of the assembled candidates, nine in the first two debates, ten this week, to clearly and emphatically condemn the offensive reactions and the “thinking” underlying them suggests that none of the candidates possess the integrity, courage, confidence and values required to be a trustworthy leader of the United States. Each of them had a duty to confront and reject these embarrassing audience responses. There were 28 opportunities, among all the candidates in the three debates, to do so. None were taken.”

On an earlier occasion  similar to the Bridenstine incident, Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA.) changed the subject to Obamacare after an elderly supporter asked, “Who’s going to shoot Obama?” accompanied by laughter in the room.  I wrote in part…

“Broun had a duty to confront the man, and say, “Sir, however much we may disagree with the President, he is the elected leader of the United States of America, and deserves our respect and allegiance. We do not settle our disagreements by murder or riots in this country, but by reason, debate and elections. …Assassination isn’t funny, and we should not make light of it. I’ll accept your apologies on behalf of the United States of America. And I don’t want to hear anything like that again at one of my town meetings.”…Rep. Paul Broun, by trying to curry favor with the worst of our citizenry and failing his duty to confront calls to violence that are antithetical to free political discourse and American values, has thoroughly disgraced himself.”

All of that applies with equal force to Rep. Bridenstine.


Spark and Pointer: Fred

19 thoughts on “Ethics Alarms Mail Bag: Rep. Jim Bridenstine and The Duty To Confront

  1. I don’t see how this is any different than Howard Dean openly referring to GWB as the enemy and responding to a questioner telling him that he might want to “help your neighbor and not tear him down” by saying “George Bush is not my neighbor.”

    • Howard Dean is one of the great assholes of American politics in the last 50 years, perhaps THE great asshole. But I don’t recall mentioning him in the post. I don’t think calling a president the enemy, however, is anywhere in the same league as quietly standing mute when someone says he should be executed or assassinated, or a crowd jeers a gay soldier.

  2. You didn’t. I just pulled him as a handy example of jerkassery from the other side. Perhaps a better example might be the filmmakers of the faux-historical mockumentary about the assassination of GWB, and those who cheered on that film? Further, if I had a nickel for every conversation I had during the GWB years with someone who said GWB should be put against a wall and shot, I’d be a VERY rich man. I didn’t bother saying anything, though, because I wasn’t going to change anyone’ mind. I don’t see any duty to deter someone who spouts angry rhetoric unless they might actually carry out their threat. Otherwise, it’s just heated rhetoric.

    • However, one person’s heated rhetoric is another person’s call to action. I recall that Thomas à Becket was assassinated by well-intentioned knights who heard their frustrated king spout something stupid like “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

      Especially if one is a “public servant,” as we hope that our elected leaders are, it is irresponsible and unethical to ignore such statements. All such statements, whether they are about a democrat or a republican, or about any normal person (using that adjective deliberately), must be confronted.

      • It’s not a call to action, in the legal sense at least. The sentiment is lawless and abhorrent but not prone to incite imminent lawless action. I’m not quite clear if you meant to suggest that it crossed that threshold for forbidden speech or not, but I hope not- She should have been confronted and told she was wrong, but not silenced by law.

    • Yes, but it risks sounding like a tit-for-tat excuse. Republicans complained bitterly about Bush’s treatment, and should be sensitized to the limits of respectable rhetoric. And Bush was hardly treated more disrespectfully than Clinton.

      • It does sound like tit-for-tat, but R’s who tell red-blooded supporters to back off risk sounding like high-minded losers, like they want the support and the money but not the supporters. It’s hard to compare GWB and Clinton’s treatment, though I’ll cop to disrespecting Clinton, since a lot of what he did was joke gold mine, i.e. “swallow the leader.” I didn’t see a whole lot of actually funny jokes being made about Bush the younger, mostly it was just naked hatred.

          • No, telling those who slam the president and say they want him gone to dial back the rhetoric does, and is part of the reason the GOP is facing a fight between the TP and the mainstream. Someone who specifically says that the president should be killed, or more likely that the CURRENT president should be killed, should be met with more a response of “I understand your anger and frustration, but what you are saying Could lead to anarchy.” Of course that can always be countered with “desperate times call for desperate measures.” If someone persists in whacky rhetoric after you’ve given them the chance to step back, THAT’S when you know it’s time to step away from them.

              • Absolutely true, I’m just saying that the answer you gave isn’t likely to play well with angry partisans, who won’t respond well to being scolded. The answer I gave is one that MIGHT separate the angry but sane partisans from the true whackos. A good chunk of those who hated Bush then and who hate Obama now don’t give a damn that killing the president is wrong, they just want the guy GONE. My point is that this guy’s failure to smack this person down needs to be put in political context. In an ethical context the question is a slam-dunk, killing anyone just because you disagree with their politics is wrong, wrong, wrong.

    • If any Democratic lawmaker listened to something like that and failed to object, I will happily criticize them. Something tells me that may have happened.

  3. Agreed Bridenstein went over the top in the first part of the comment you quoted. That being said, Obama’s distain for the Bill Of Rights and the actions that the NSA, the Attorney General, and other high officials in his administration have taken against the 4th and 10th Amendment to the US Constitution make him a plausible candidate for impeachment. No Mr. President, you cannot change the provisions of a law passed by Congress.

    • Sure he can. Checks and balances only work if the branches are willing to use the checks and balances. As long as the Senate is a majority Lap Dog Democrats for their Prince in the White House, and they continue to value their Party over their branch of government AND they don’t value the Constitutional system we’ve established (which they don’t — because their constituency doesn’t) then they’ll continue to do however the hell they please.

      • Good point tex! The Democrats at this point in their history don’t seem to value the U.S.A. Bill of Rights and the idea of a limited government. They seem to be quite happy with a large expansive statist vision of how the USA should operate. I think they’d feel quite at home in Mussolini’s Italy in the 20s and 30s.

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