Scott Brown And The Slippery Slope To Distrust

Stay classy, Senator...

Stay classy, Senator…

Who started our elected officials down the slippery slope to the point where the public viewed them as indistinguishable from any other celebrity? Was it when  Richard Nixon appeared on “Laugh-In” in 1968? Was it when ex-Speaker Tip O’Neill allowed himself the be shown in a commercial for Quality International Budget Hotels, popping out of a suitcase? Was it a decade earlier, when washed up song and dance man George Murphy won a U.S. Senate seat for California? There were critics who sounded the alarms loud and early about the dangers of our leaders trading on their visibility and power like any pop singer, athlete or actress; such critics were inevitably told to “lighten up.” We assumed, did we not, that our leaders, being responsible and respectful of our institutions,  would know what lines not to cross, and when their self-mockery, playing around and hucksterism would risk harming the credibility of democracy and the public trust.

Why would we assume that, especially as cynical politicians increasingly sought to win the votes of even more cynical young voters?

Ronald Reagan explained to an interviewer that while it would be fun to return to acting—playing a Bond villain, maybe—after leaving the Presidency, it would be unseemly. Is anything unseemly now? Arnold Schwarzenegger stepped out of a Governor’s mansion back into cyborgdom without blinking. Rudy Giuliani appeared in drag on Saturday Night Live while he was still mayor. Senators and House members eagerly grabbed cameos in sitcoms and dramas. Some were even good at it: Senator John Glenn’s guest appearance on “Frazier” is one of the highlights of the whole series. Did any of these eager publicity hounds consider that the more our leaders behaved like every other celebrity, the less reason the public had to believe they were any better, smarter, or more honest than the politically vocal and usually ignorant celebrities who supported them?

A public office is a public trust, and therefore the honor of that office is a gift that the temporary occupant should not trade upon for crass commercial gain and ego fulfillment.  It is bad, and corrupting, enough that the simple fact that they held high office is usually enough to guarantee former officials private sector employment in lobbying firms, universities, law firms and other lucrative enterprises. Still, the institution and positions a former elected leader leaves behind are still deeply affected by the conduct and the reputation of former occupants.

When I first studied Presidential leadership, the consensus among political scientists was that the public perceived the office of the Presidency according to the conduct, reputation, image  and character of George Washington.  Today, thanks to constantly sinking precedents, the public expects lies, excuses incompetence, and shrugs off greed, with the ugly example of the Clintons now reaching depths never envisioned even when Gerald Ford became the star client of the William Morris agency.

Yet somehow I didn’t think it would come to this. I didn’t foresee a former U.S. Senator following the lead of Marie Osmond and Kirstie Alley, and becoming a shill for a diet supplement.  I am so damn naive sometimes. I assumed that an ex-Massachusetts Republican Senator would no more follow that seedy path, no matter how much he needed the money,  then Sarah Palin would pose nude for Playboy. Yet here is Scott Brown, serving as spokesperson for AdvoCare products, which resemble Herbalife in their marketing plan and likely legitimacy.

His acceptance of such an undignified and dubious role harms every U.S. Senator, the institution of the Senate, and the republic itself. It further obliterates all pretense of superior character and respect for the institutions they serve from our politicians, and makes every single one of them appear less worthy of office, respectable or dignified in the eyes of citizens and voters. There are essays all over the web right now asking why slimy Donald Trump is polling so well, given that he is boor, a bully, a clod, a huckster and a self-promoting fool.

Scott Brown and the trend he represents is a big reason. “How is Trump any worse that the rest?” Trumps fans will ask. “At least he doesn’t pretend to be something he’s not.”  Dignity and respect for the privilege of public service have always been vital tools of leadership, and prerequisites for attaining it. This was understood for so long that our leaders forgot why those qualities were important.  Now they have neglected both for their own selfish, short-term gains in money, celebrity and ego-gratification, leaving a distrustful public that can no longer distinguish between statesmen and con artists….perhaps because there is no distinction left.

“Ick Factor” At Its Worst: No, The Bystander Who Took The Video Of Walter Scott’s Shooting Isn’t “Cashing In”

Q. "Oh, ICK! Why would you take money for THAT?" A. Because it's valuable, they want it, and I own it, you idiot.

Q. “Oh, ICK! Why would you take money for THAT?”
A. Because it’s valuable, they want it, and I own it, you idiot.

Slate Magazine’s Josh Voorhees seems to think there is something unseemly about Feidin Santana, the bystander who recorded the film on his smartphone showing North Charleston police officer Michael T. Slager shooting and killing Walter Scott on April 4, seeking payment from news outlets who use his video.

In an article revealing that Santana’s lawyers are making the case that he is entitled to compensation, Voorhees writes, “While it may seem opportunistic to try to make money off a video of someone’s death…” and later,

“Regardless of how you feel about Santana trying to cash in, if nothing else it provides another incentive—albeit a less noble one—for bystanders to whip out their phones and start filming when they see a police confrontation.”

Let me be uncharacteristically blunt: anyone who sees anything unethical, unseemly, ignoble or opportunistic about Santana seeking fair payment for his property when it is being used by news outlets all over the country as if the video was shot by their own employees is either… Continue reading

Case Study In Cultural Ethics Rot: “Bin Laden Shooter” Robert O’Neill

Dead, but still helping to corrupt our culture...

Yes, dead, but still helping to corrupt our culture…

Do you remember all those World War II, Korean War and Vietnam veterans who published books and gave interviews taking personal credit for the successes of the United Armed Services? No, neither do I, because there weren’t very many. The ethical culture of military organizations has always been that the unit is what matters, not the individual. For a soldier to seek credit, accolades and celebrity through his own disclosures was regarded as disgraceful conduct, and a betrayal of military honor and tradition.

Those values, and the important larger cultural values that they reinforce, are crumbling rapidly. Former Navy SEAL Robert O’Neill, one of many U.S. special forces members to storm Osama bin Laden’s compound on May 2, 2011, confirmed to The Washington Post that he was the unnamed SEAL who fired the fatal bullet at the terrorist leader. His decision to make himself an instant celebrity and speaker circuit star comes nearly two years after another Seal in the mission, Matt Bissonnette, published his account of the raid, “No Easy Day.” The Post says that O’Neill has endured “an agonizing personal struggle, as he weighed concerns over privacy and safety against a desire to have a least some control over a story that appeared likely to break, with or without his consent.” There is no struggle if O’Neill accepted that fact that his ethical obligation is to shut up, and not dishonor his colleagues, his profession and his country by choosing celebrity over preserving a vital ethical standard.

Will future Seals jeopardize the success of their missions as each tries to deliver the “money shot” that will literally result in millions? Why wouldn’t they, now that soldiers are absorbing the American culture’s obsession with cashing in and becoming famous as the primary objective of human existence? Like all ethical standards, the tradition of soldiers neither seeking individual credit nor wanting it had strong practical reasons for its existence. A military unit is the ultimate team, and no team can function at maximum efficiency if the members regard themselves as competing for glory. Continue reading

Just What Every President Doesn’t Need…A Traitor

"My observations while serving in the President's trust are held in strictest confidence, and...HOW much? Sure, I'll write a book!"

“My observations while serving in the President’s trust are held in strictest confidence, and…HOW much? Damn! Sure, I’ll write a book!”

President Obama is hardly the first President to be blind-sided by a “tell-all” exposé authored by someone who had an obligation to keep his mouth shut and his keyboard quiet. The unethical practice of a President’s former advisors, cabinet members, secret security agents, servants and others who held his trust cashing in and publishing often bitter, agenda-driven books detailing juicy and uncomplimentary details of what went on behind closed doors began gaining steam during the Reagan years (something else to detest David Stockman for) and has accelerated in every administration since.

The latest sniper shot from a grassy knoll is the work of Vali Nasr, a professor and former senior State Department adviser who worked with Richard Holbrooke, previously Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. In his new book, which, of course, had to be published while Obama was still in office to have a chance of making the former advisor the money he craves, Nasr relates details of what he regards as the incompetent White House foreign policy decision-making apparatus, in which vital calls that should have been left to experts were run through Obama’s political team, whose judgment was based on polls and narrow, short-term political considerations. Continue reading

Ethics Quote of the Day: Rear Admiral Sean Pybus

“We do NOT advertise the nature of our work, NOR do we seek recognition for our actions. Today, we find former SEALs headlining positions in a Presidential campaign; hawking details about a mission against Enemy Number 1; and generally selling other aspects of NSW training and operations.  For an Elite Force that should be humble and disciplined for life, we are certainly not appearing to be so.”

—-Rear Admiral Sean Pybus, Commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, in a letter sent to all members of the Special Operations community telling  them to stop revealing information about their secret operations. The letter was sent out as “No Easy Day,” a Navy Seal’s unauthorized account of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, hit the book stores.

The letter is said to be the beginning of a concerted effort by the military to discourage an accelerating trend among Navy SEALs of cashing in on their notoriety and exploits.

Good luck. When a culture based on professionalism, sacrifice, discretion and honor meets a larger culture that values none of those things as much as celebrity, publicity, personal aggrandizement and financial rewards, the results are pre-ordained, and the key word is corruption. The SEALs won’t be able to fix themselves unless they can figure out how to fix America, and compared to that, finding bin Laden was a walk in the park.

______________________________

Facts: NBC

Graphic: By Hero

Ethics Quiz: Can You Undo A Past Confict of Interest or Appearance of Impropriety?

In November, Ethics Alarms noted that Melanie Sloan, the head of the ethics watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, was involved in exactly the kind of Washington insider conflict of interest that the group typically slams politicians for engaging in:

“Melanie Sloan, long the leader and public face of CREW, announced that she is joining the new firm of lobbyist Lanny Davis, a long-time Democratic ally and famous for being Bill Clinton’s most ubiquitous apologist during the Monica Lewinsky scandal…Over the summer,  CREW aligned itself with the for-profit schools industry.  “Today, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sent a letter to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (“HELP”), asking the committee to consider the financial motives of critics of the for-profit education industry,” a July CREW press release began. Later, Sloan again attacked the motives of for-profit school critics in a CREW blog post that linked to an op-ed piece Davis had written defending the for-profit industry. That industry then became a client of Davis’s lobbying firm.

“Got that? Sloan and CREW pushed the interests of Davis’s clients, then Sloan went to work for Davis, where she will, in part, be enriched by the very people whom she assisted in the name of ethics—by attacking the financial motives of for-profit school opponents! This is precisely the kind of D.C. two-step that CREW mercilessly exposes when elected officials do it, and now here is the very same CREW leader who once condemned such corrupt practices, doing it herself.”

Now, for reasons yet undisclosed. Sloan will not be leaving CREW after all.

Does that make everything all right, obliterating the conflict of interest exposed by her decision to take the lobbying job for a firm representing the same interests that CREW had defended? Is the stain of that apparent conflict now erased? Continue reading

CREW Gets Hoisted: For Ethics Watchdogs, Integrity’s a Bitch

CREW—Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington—is one of the most active and fairest of political watchdog groups. It has a definite liberal bias, for approximately twice as many Republicans as Democrats manage to attract CREW critiques, but that’s all right: plenty of elected officials from both parties have had their shady dealings exposed by the group, which is notable for its lack of sympathy for Washington’s traditional myths and excuses to allow guilt-free corruption.

An ethics watchdog, however, can never engage in the same conduct it criticizes in others. The reason for this is as much practical as ethical. A group that made a strong case that certain behavior shouldn’t be tolerated by the public in its elected champions doesn’t diminish the validity of its arguments by violating its own principles, but it does symbolically consent to accepting the same standard of review for its own actions that it demanded for its targets. This is what Will Shakespeare called being hoisted by your own petard—blowing yourself up with a bomb of your own construction.

As Shakespeare also noted, the previous quarry of the one who is thus hoisted just love to see this happen. It doesn’t really make what they did any less wrong or the ethics watchdog any less right to have condemned it, but when the critic gets caught doing something similar, it can make the conduct seem less wrong. This also will often guarantee that future criticism by the watchdog will be greeted with more suspicion than respect.

Salon has a posted a well-researched account of how CREW hoisted itself recently, and the prospects for the organization maintaining its previous level of respect and credibility are not good. Continue reading