Public Servant Ethics, Employment Ethics, Baseball Fan Ethics, And Senator John McCain

A sub-plot of yesterday’s fizzled firecracker of a “bombshell testimony” by James Comey was Senator John McCain’s bizarre questioning. When I saw how many of my “resistance” member Facebook friends were talking about it, I knew how disappointed they were that Comey produced no smoking guns or even a soggy water pistol. Poor John picked the wrong day to stop taking Ginkgo Biloba. Still, Democrats and Republicans alike were bothered by a senior senator and former Presidential candidate sounding confused and semi-coherent.

Here was the whole exchange:

MCCAIN: In the case of — Hillary Clinton, you made the statement that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to bring a suit against her, although it had been very careless — in their behavior. But you did reach a conclusion in that case that it was not necessary to further pursue her.

Yet, at the same time, in the case of Mr. Comey, you said that there was not enough information to make a conclusion. Tell me the different between your conclusion as far as former Secretary Clinton is concerned and — and Mr. — Mr. Trump.

COMEY: The Clinton investigation was a completed investigation that the FBI been deeply involved in. And so I had an opportunity to understand all the facts and apply those facts against the law as I understood them. This investigation was underway, still going when I was fired. So it’s nowhere near in the same place. At least, it wasn’t when I was…

MCCAIN: But it’s still ongoing?

COMEY: … correct, so far as I know. It was when I left.

MCCAIN: That investigation was going on. This investigation is going on. You reached separate conclusions.

COMEY: No, that one was done. The…


MCCAIN: That investigation of (ph) any involvement of Secretary Clinton or any of her associates is completed?

COMEY: Yes, as of July the 5th, the FBI completed its investigative work, and that’s what I was announcing — what we had done and what we had found.

MCCAIN: Well, at least in the minds of this member, there’s a whole lot of questions remaining about what went on, particularly considering the fact that, as you mention, it’s a, quote, “big deal” as to what went on during the campaign.

So I’m glad you concluded that part of the investigation, but I — I think that the American people have a whole lot of questions out there, particularly since you just emphasized the role that Russia played.

And, obviously, she was a candidate for president at the time, so she was clearly involved in this whole situation where fake news — as you just described it, “big deal,” took place. And you’re going to have to help me out here. In other words, we’re complete — the investigation of anything that former Secretary Clinton had to do with the campaign is over and we don’t have to worry about it anymore?

COMEY: With respect to Secretary — I’m not — I’m a little confused, Senator. With respect to Secretary Clinton…


COMEY: … we investigated criminal investigation in connection with her use of a personal e-mail server…

MCCAIN: I understand.

COMEY: … and that’s the investigation I announced the conclusion of on July 5th.

MCCAIN: So — but, at the same time, you made the announcement there would be no charges brought against then Secretary Clinton for any activities involved in the Russia involvement in our — engagement in our election.

I — I don’t quite understand how you could be done with that, but not complete — done with the whole investigation of their attempt to affect the outcome of our election.

COMEY: No. I’m sorry, we’re not — at least, when I left — when I was fired on May the 9th, there was still an open, active investigation to understand the Russian effort, and whether any Americans work with them.

MCCAIN: But you reached the conclusion that there was no reason to bring charges again Secretary Clinton. So you reached a conclusion.

In the case of Mr. Comey, you — President Comey (sic)…

COMEY: No, sir.

MCCAIN: … I mean (ph) — excuse me — case of President Trump, you have an ongoing investigation.

So you got one candidate who you’re done with and another candidate that you have a long way to go. Is that correct?

COMEY: I don’t know how far the — the FBI has to go, but yes, that — the Clinton e-mail investigation was completed. The investigation of Russia’s efforts in connection with the election, and whether there was any coordination, and, if so, with whom, between Russia and the campaign…


MCCAIN: You just made it — you just made it…

COMEY: … was ongoing when I left.

MCCAIN: You just made it clear in what you said, this is a, quote, “big deal,” unquote.

I think it’s hard to reconcile, in once case you reach complete conclusion, and the other side, you have — you have not, and you — in fact, obviously, there’s a lot there, as — as we know — as you called it a, quote, “big deal.” She’s one of the candidates. But in her case, you say there will be no charges, and in the case of President Trump, there — the — the investigation continues.

MCCAIN: What has been brought out in this hearing is — is more and more emphasis on the Russian engagement and involvement in this campaign. How serious do you think this was?

COMEY: Very serious. But — I want to say some — be clear. It was — we have not announced, and there was no predication to announce, an investigation of whether the Russians may have coordinated with Secretary Clinton’s campaign.

Secretary Clinton’s…


MCCAIN: … No, but — they may not have been involved with her campaign. They were involved with the entire presidential campaign, obviously.

COMEY: Of course. Yes, sir. And that is an investigation that began last summer, and, so far as I’m aware, continues.

MCCAIN: So both President Trump and former Candidate Clinton are both involved in the investigation. Yet one of them, you said there’s going to be no charges, and the other one, the — the investigation continues.

Well, I think there’s a double standard there, to tell you the truth. Then, when the president said to you — you talked about the April 11th phone call, and he said, quote, “Because I’ve been very loyal to you, very loyal. We had that thing, you know,” did that arouse your curiosity as what, quote, “that thing” was?


MCCAIN: Why didn’t you ask him?

COMEY: It didn’t seem to me to be important for the conversation we were having, to understand it. I took it to be some — an effort to — to communicate to me this — that there is a relationship between us where I’ve been good to you, you should be good to me.

MCCAIN: Yeah, but I — I think it would intensely arouse my curiosity if the president of the United States said “We had that thing, you know” — I’d like to know what the hell that thing is, particularly if I’m the director of the FBI.

COMEY: Yeah, I — I get that, Senator. Honestly, I’ll tell you what — this is speculation, but what I concluded at the time is, in his memory, he was searching back to our encounter at the dinner, and was preparing himself to say, “I offered loyalty to you, you promised loyalty to me,” and all of a sudden his memory showed him that did not happen, and I think he pulled up short.

That’s just a guess, but I — I — a lot of conversations with humans over the years.

MCCAIN: I think I would have had some curiosity if it had been about me, to be honest with you. So are you aware — anything that would believe you (ph) — to believe that the president or the members of the administration or members of the campaign could potentially be used to coerce or blackmail the administration?

COMEY: That’s a subject for investigations, not something I can comment on, sitting here.

MCCAIN: But you’ve reached that conclusion as far as Secretary Clinton was concerned. But you’re not reaching a conclusion as far as this administration is concerned. Are you aware of anything that would lead you to believe that information exists that could coerce members of the administration or blackmail the administration?

COMEY: That’s not a question I can answer, Senator.

Later, McCain tried to clarify what he was getting at:

“What I was trying to get at was whether Mr. Comey believes that any of his interactions with the President rise to the level of obstruction of justice. In the case of Secretary Clinton’s emails, Mr. Comey was willing to step beyond his role as an investigator and state his belief about what ‘no reasonable prosecutor’ would conclude about the evidence. I wanted Mr. Comey to apply the same approach to the key question surrounding his interactions with President Trump — whether or not the President’s conduct constitutes obstruction of justice. While I missed an opportunity in today’s hearing, I still believe this question is important, and I intend to submit it in writing to Mr. Comey for the record.”

Now that would have been a great question, but McCain didn’t come within a mile of it, since he got stuck in a rut where he appeared to be saying that Clinton was being investigated for colluding with the Russians.

McCain had an explanation for his brain cramp too…

“Maybe going forward I shouldn’t stay up late watching the Diamondbacks night games.”

I’m going to take the Senator at his word, because I can relate. As a passionate Boston Red Sox fan since the age 0f 12, I have often been faced with the dilemma of being committed to a crucial Red Sox game on the West Coast knowing that I needed some minimal level of sleep to function competently the next day as a challenging responsibility looms. And, I must admit, in many of those cases I chose following baseball, my passion, over my occupation. In 1978,  as I think I have related here, I walked out of a mandatory meeting because the Red Sox and Yankees were about to start a single play-off game (Bucky Dent, damn him) to determine the winner of their division, essentially telling my employers that my team was more important to me than my job—which was true. It was, however, a pointless meeting, and we all knew it.

In those late night dilemmas now, I can’t make the choice I made when I was 12. 21, 30 or even 40. I don’t do well on less than five hours of sleep, so I have chosen to hit the sack when it is 2 am, the game is heading into extra-innings, and I have a seminar to teach.

McCain is a tough guy, but he is even older than me. He’s got to know that he needs more sleep now–he’s 80—than he once did. This was an important hearing, and he had a job to do for the nation. He’s a Senator, not a Georgetown University fundraiser. He had a duty,  one that he was elected to do for the nation. I know  McCain understands duty. His loyalty and support for his favorite baseball team have to be subordinate to that.

The other ethics issue raised by this episode is whether it is responsible for public servants, elected officials and judges to stay in office until they drop dead, like Antonin Scalia or Franklin D. Roosevelt.  It isn’t responsible. The duty of competence has to rule, and since few of us realize or can admit when the diminishments of age and infirmity dictate leaving the jobs we love, prudence (an ethical value),  responsibility, respect (for the people who rely on them), trust, and fairness (to the voters, to the institutions, to the nation and the public) and courage (and we know McCain has that) should lead aging leaders like the Senator to step down before people start talking about Strom Thurmond.

There should be a statutory  age limit, but whether there is a formal one or not, members of Congress and the Supreme Court should be responsible and follow an unwritten rule. Get out before 80.

And then you can watch the end of the game.

12 thoughts on “Public Servant Ethics, Employment Ethics, Baseball Fan Ethics, And Senator John McCain

  1. There will never be one as long as the notorious RBG and the aging Stephen Breyer are still on the SCOTUS and there is a Republican in the White House. There will never be one as long as Bernie Sanders can still say a word. There will never be one as long as some central figure in one party is getting up there in years. I know for a fact that Frank Lautenberg said privately that he would live forever before he would step aside to let Corey Booker run for Senate. Unfortunately viral pneumonia is very unforgiving when you are just shy of 90.

    You are absolutely right about all the values you cite. However, the parties also know when there are still funds to be raised and rallies to be held, and they also know when there are court precedents, maybe even very important ones, that are not as solidly in place as we all think. At this point it’s a race between the end of Trump’s tenure as president and the two justices’ bodies giving out on them. It’s also a race between the end of Trump’s time and several senators giving up the ghost. No Democrat wants to step down and risk a possible further GOP pickup and no Republican wants to step down and risk an election in a time of chaos. We may claim to be a nation of laws and not of men, but those in the know know that it isn’t what you know, what ideas you have, but who you know, owe, or blow and who knows, owes, or blows you that matters.

  2. May do this in sections as I just had a rather long comment deleted by my computer before I could post it. ARGH! But to try again. There comes a time in anyone’s life when it should be obvious that it is time to “Hang up the guns”. In my own life, I am but 71, and I am seeing numerous anomalies in my behavior (walking into a room and wondering why I am here) and in my rational thought (I suspect most who have read my comments sometimes have the same question). I am getting to where I lose debates to my wife on a regular basis (she’ll tell you I’ve always done that). More to the point, I am AWARE of the beginning deterioration. I am wondering if John McCain and Ruth Ginsberg are. Another thought had occurred to me, however. After realizing that there was some slippage, I have refused an opportunity to run for Alderman and for Mayor of our little newly-incorporated city, because I honestly did not feel I would be able to do the job, either of them, justice, either mentally (what’d you say my name was again) or physically. I’m winded some mornings after tying my shoe-laces. However, I am reasonably certain that narcissism plays little part in my personality. I suspect it is a BIG part of most elected officials (city, county, state, national) personalities. The idea being “Nobody but ME can do this job properly”, or in some cases, “Nobody but me can do this job, period, well or poorly.” I suspect that this is where John McCain, Ruth Ginsburg and I part company. I KNOW I’m a ‘senior citizen’ and cannot do many of the things I did many years ago (win bar fights, win debates with my wife, remember what I was saying…I have been known to forget what I was saying in mid-sentence). I don’t think they ARE aware of it. And this worries me a little. In so far as I am aware, and this was never my field of practice, there have never been any longitudinal studies on the attitudes of either narcissists or sociopaths as they grow older. I believe that needs to happen, if for no other reason so that we can point to some hard data when trying to limit the damage done by someone who refuses to retire when he/she should. Yes, as evidenced by his rambling, nearly incoherent questioning, and Ruth’s refusal to recuse after admitting bias both need to retire, today. My guess, the framers never expected anybody to live long enough to get this senile. But it is happening, and we need to take some steps to deal with it. One Senator might not gum up the works too badly; one SCOTUS Justice…much more likely.

    • One of my mentors while working with British Petroleum said, “There comes that time in all our lives when we must whatever our calling. The great man knows when that time has come.” This was in response to a conversation regarding the need for the retirement of a man who had been with the company a staggering 65 years. What he said for some reason always stuck with me. Based on my mentor’s comment and your reply you are one of those great men. Congratulations.

      • Thank you, sir, but I have a LOT of trouble thinking of myself as a ‘great man’. An old one, yes, but great? I guess I have my flashes.

  3. I feel most of our representatives in government from the local courthouse all the way up to Washington DC rarely think about what their actual responsibilities are to We The People or give ethics a passing thought. Their actions, priorities, and results do not reflect such introspection. I agree with your analysis of what should be going through their minds 100% and that maybe there should be a point at which they “age out” of service gracefully. However, for them to consider ethics would require them to do just the thing that they are not doing in the first place, which is thinking about someone or thing other than THEMSELVES. Maybe the lack of ethics is more about their lack character. I know the fact we continue to accept such mediocre performance says something about our ethics and character as a nation.

    • Wilm, what is really sad is that most of these guys are only there to keep their jobs. Watch how fast health care and tax reform get passed as we approach the end of the election cycle. Until then, nothing is going to happen. In other words, business as usual.

  4. Interesting, complex thread. I think I see all the arguments. In the particular instance of John McCain, I don’t think there is a right or wrong ethical answer here to question “should he resign now?” However, Jack, as usual, you have framed the questions clearly and humorously. The question posed is worthy, and painful: at what point is there an obligation to step down from public responsibility? [Private responsibility, for that matter. I know you address this in your It’s a Wonderful Life post.]

    I hesitate to draw at line at a particular age. 80? Seems arbitrary. Most ages seem arbitrary. Human life varies too much for that kind of test. My dad is 82, and sharp as a tack when it comes to his work. Is he the best driver on the road? [Need one answer that?] I know a bright line is simpler that way, on average, when dealing with things like Social Security. But Congress, the Supreme Court — they are different. We Americans have the luxury of not having rules and bright lines. So how about this: “one has an ethical obligation to step down from public office when one realizes that one cannot fulfill one’s responsbilities to the best of one’s abilities, and recognizes that those abilities are now compromised as well.” [inartfully drafted, but perhaps you see where I’m going — there has to be a case by case standard built in; it’s like fiduciary duty]. Goes for Donald Trump too.

    However, as I read and re-read McCain’s comments, I think I have an inkling of what he was driving at. He’s not direct — that’s for sure — but he’s not completely incoherent, either.

    In my opinion, he adds a certain degree of colorful commentary, and for now, should stay in. He has earned it, and the voters of Arizona have spoken.

    If we all think of this as ancient Greece or Rome, we can relax a bit. Remember the original meaning of the word Senate: senior citizens, old, wise ones: the House of Lords, a senior chamber.

    Besides — if you look at things a certain way, McCain may be the kind of person that President Donald Trump would actually listen to. And if that’s true, what’s wrong with that? They can golf together and actually talk straight to each other [maybe I’m fantasizing, but not THAT much]. McCain has a certain dignified [if odd, even somewhat doddering, not unlike Donald Trump] presence, but he speaks for an interesting constituency. Is he their best spokesperson [are ether of them]? Hell no, but he is a war hero, and every country needs war heroes [alas]. Let him see this current drama with President Trump through, at least through the scheduled end of President Trump’s first term. Then, year, he should re-assess things.

    Again, though, Jack, you have gotten people to think. Thank you.

    Let us hope that McCain comes to see the wisdom of when it is time to retire. My old boss [a brilliant Chinese-American woman from the Boston area], from whom I learned so much, used to say that at some point “we become old fools.” Let us hope that Sen. McCain is thinking about these things — Shakespeare sure did.

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