A quote in an obituary for long-time NASA chief James Beggs, who died this week at the age of 94, shocked me into realizing once again how alien basic ethics have become to our leaders in business, government, politics…hell, just about anywhere. And once again, I’m wondering what good I’m doing, and why I bother.
Beggs had overseen more than 20 successful space shuttle launches, but he was on administrative leave due to an investigation of his conduct when the Challenger launched and exploded in 1986. As we have discussed on Ethics Alarms, a landmark example of failed ethics and decision-making caused the temporary leadership of NASA to ignore dire warnings from two engineers and send the shuttle and its precious human cargo up in dangerously cold weather. Indeed Beggs called NASA from his exile that fateful day to express his concern about icing. He resigned from NASA in 1986, about a month after the Challenger disaster.
Beggs was reluctant to criticize his former agency’s culpability in the accident, but he was adamant that “they shouldn’t have launched.” “Whether I would have done anything different at the time, I’ve thought about that,” he said. “I think I would have, but that’s pure conjecture.”
Remarkable. How often does a critic of a past decision have the intrinsic fairness and integrity to say that? The Wuhan virus landscape has been polluted by extravagant and unjust second-guessing from the start, as everyone from politicians to pundits to plumbers are just certain that they would have known how to handle an unprecedented situation with significant unknown factors and substantial risk. They would have reached a different, quicker,better approach than the individual who actually had to make the call.
It’s a disgusting spectacle, and an unethical one. The “right” decision can always be made to seem obvious after the fact; critics cannot possibly know what their state of mind would have been at the actual time the decision had to be made by someone else. Beggs’ acknowledgement of that, in a situation where he could have credibly second-guessed his colleagues without equivocation, demonstrates the character of a decent and ethical professional determined to do and say the right thing even when opportunities are present for personal gain.
That story, in turn, reminded me of…Wendell Willkie.
In 1940, as war was raging in Europe and the Depression was deepening at home, the Republican party nominated Wendell Willkie, a true “dark horse” candidate and a political amateur—he had never run for public office—to take on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as he sought a second term. Willkie was an Indiana-born utilities industry executive who hadn’t even switched switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. The stout, handsome, charismatic candidate “radiated a stunning combination of intellect and homely warmth,” as one admirer put it at the time…and he had a real chance at winning, particularly if he made Roosevelt seem more likely to get our soldier killed on foreign shores. Roosevelt was also attempting to win a third term, breaking George Washington’s unwritten rule. It was by far the toughest of his four campaigns. FDR was vulnerable.
By the time the Republican convention gaveled to a close, Nazi Germany was in the process of taking over France. Alarming as the international situation was becoming, the American public was still in the throes of isolationism, though its President was stealthily and sometimes not so stealthily preparing it fight Hitler. In 1940, Roosevelt was engaged in persuading a dubious population to accept his plan of trading 50 mothballed destroyers to Britain for its defense. The War and Navy Departments were fighting him, alarmed that this might leave the United States itself dangerously exposed. Most lawmakers and a majority of the public shared their opposition to the idea.
But Wendell Willkie, through intermediaries, signaled Roosevelt that he would not attack him over the deal. It is believed that Willkie’s unexpected support broke the back of Congressional opposition, and gave FDR the courage to go through with the transaction. (Later, Willkie would support Lend-Lease as well.)
Even a larger controversy loomed regarding a proposed peace-time conscription, which Roosevelt believed was essential. It would be the first such draft in U.S. history, and, again, much of the public was hostile to the idea. Facing re-election, Roosevelt was being coy about the topic. Then Willkie, against the advice of key aides, gave a speech in which he supported the President on the need for a military draft. When the selective service bill passed the next month, Sen. Hiram Johnson said that Willkie had “broken the back” of the draft opposition.
The GOP candidate easily could have wielded popular opposition to the draft as a weapon against his Democratic opposition; remember, Pearl Harbor was more than a year away. And the United States might have been fatally unprepared when December 7, 1941 came. Charles Peters, in his historical account of Willkie’s campaign, “Five Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing ‘We Want Willkie!’ Convention of 1940 and How it Freed F.D.R. to Save the Western World,” relates what Willkie said when he was challenged on his decision to support Roosevelt rather than enhance his own chances of winning the White House. Referring to his epitaph, the defeated nominee said,
“If I could choose between ‘Here lies an unimportant President,’ and “Here lies [a man] who contributed to saving freedom at a moment of great peril,” I would prefer the latter.”‘
“If we can understand how and why people rose to their best,” Peters comments, “then maybe we can make it happen again.”
I’m not so sure. The lessons of history are increasingly unknown to modern day Americans, and ruthless pursuit of power and personal gain has become the seemingly unvarying norm among our political and professional class. There are depressingly few role models like James Beggs and Wendell Willkie to model the ethical behavior they personified, and that must flourish in a successful democracy.
[A special thanks to commenter Wayne, who caught and flagged a stupid error best explained by my neurologist, in which I twice used 1936 instead of the correct date, 1940.]