Encore! Presidents Day Ethics: The Presidents of the United States on Ethics and Leadership

It’s President’s Day, and I see that it has been five years since the most popular Ethics Alarms President’s Day post was published. That one, from 2011, reminds us of the ethics wisdom and leadership acumen of the remarkable men who have served their country in the most challenging, difficult, and ethically complicated of all jobs, the U.S. Presidency.

In the middle of a campaign season littered with some disturbingly unethical candidates, it seems especially appropriate to re-post that entry now….with some updates. In 2011, I left out three Presidents, including the current one. Now all are represented, most of them well.


Ladies and Gentlemen, the Presidents of the United States of America:


George Washington: “I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.”

John Adams: “Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.” 

Thomas Jefferson: “On great occasions every good officer must be ready to risk himself in going beyond the strict line of law, when the public preservation requires it; his motives will be a justification…”

James Madison: “No government any more than any individual will long be respected without being truly respectable.”

James Monroe: “The best form of government is that which is most likely to prevent the greatest sum of evil.”

John Quincy Adams: “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.”

Andrew Jackson: “One man with courage makes a majority.”   (Attributed)

Martin Van Buren: “No evil can result from its inhibition more pernicious than its toleration.”

William Henry Harrison: “There is nothing more corrupting, nothing more destructive of the noblest and finest feelings of our nature, than the exercise of unlimited power.” Continue reading

The Last Birthday Gift

blown out candles on a birthday cakeThis is my birthday. It’s also the third anniversary of my father’s death, as the two dates collided for all time when I found him dead, as if asleep, in his favorite chair when I went to my parents condo to meet him for a late birthday dinner, December 1, 2009.

I feel no more in the mood to celebrate my birth this day than I did that one, and seriously doubt if I ever will again. I miss my father terribly, every day really, and yet I recall that moment when I realized he was gone with mixed emotions. I knew that the old soldier, 89, fighting cancer, a heart condition and old war wounds, was facing a sharp down-turn in his quality of life; I knew that this was the way he always said he wanted to go out—quickly, without drama, humiliation or excessive expense—and I knew that among the members of his immediate family, I was the one whom he would have wanted to find his abandoned body. I never felt closer to my father, who, like so many of his gender and generation, had trouble expressing affection and intimacy directly, than I did in those last moments before the EMT’s arrived, as I stroked his thin, gray hair and said good-bye.

I have also come to believe that he gave me a great gift three years ago, probably unconsciously, but with my father, you never know.  He detested and rejected all forms of score-keeping, including regrets, accolades, praise and bucket lists. He was proud of many things in his life, especially his military service and his family, but he never felt superior to another human being based on what had happened in the past. My father believed that what mattered in life was going forward—doing one’s duty, helping others, setting a good example, and making every minute of your life count by trying to leave the world, even if it is only your small corner of it, better than it was before you got there. And when you’re done, you’re done. There is nothing to be sad about, or to be afraid of, or to regret; no recriminations for what didn’t happen, what couldn’t be completed, or mistakes made along the way. Just do your best, as you have learned to do it, for as long as you can. It’s not a competition, and you shouldn’t judge yourself by anyone’s standard but your own.

My father’s death reminded me that there is nothing special about being born. Everybody is born. It is how we use whatever time we have, when we use it well, that is truly worth celebrating, and even then, past achievements never justify resting on our laurels as long as we are still capable of doing some good, and have time left to do it.

On the day he died, my father spent loving hours with my mother in her hospital room, gave some needed advice and encouragement to my sister, wished his son a happy birthday, and made him laugh one last time. Good work, right to the end. If the timing of his finale changed for all time the meaning of my birthday for me, it also made vivid the life lessons that were the essence of Jack A. Marshall, Sr. Care about others. Be responsible.  Be fair. Do the best you can for as long as you can. Keep trying to be better. Never give up. Don’t be afraid. If you do all of that, you don’t need celebrations to prove your life has meaning. It just does.

It is true that “Happy Birthday” will never sound right to me again. Still, my father’s life and his way of leaving it gave me ideals good and true to celebrate on every December 1,  the wisdom to cherish whatever birthdays I have remaining, and the sense to never waste precious time regretting what is past and beyond changing. In many ways, his last birthday gift to me was the best one of all.

Reflections On President’s Day, 2012: A United States Diminished in Power, Influence and Ideals

Rep. Ron Paul is fond of saying that the United States shouldn’t be the world’s policeman, and thanks to irresponsible stewardship of America’s resources and horrific maintenance of its ideals, his wish has already come true. One result is a world that has no functioning opposition to evil, a world at the mercy of chaos with no champion or guiding inspiration in sight. The other result is a United States that no longer stands for its own founding principles.

For proof, we have only to look as far as Syria, where a brutal dictator is killing his own people at an accelerating rate. Although his people have tired of his tyranny, Hafez al-Assad, like Gaddafi before him, seems determined to kill as many of his own countrymen as he has to in order to stay in power. Our President, Barack Obama, has delivered stern admonitions and disapprovals, which is this President’s style and approximately as effective as tossing water balloons. The Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton, expresses frustration, for all the good that does. The killing, of course, goes on.

If you think I’m going to advocate U.S. action in Syria, you are wrong. Quite simply, we can’t afford it—not with a Congress and an Administration that appear unwilling and unable to confront rising budget deficits and crushing debt with sensible tax reform and unavoidable entitlement reductions. Yesterday Congress and the President passed yet another government hand-out of money it doesn’t have and refuses to raise elsewhere, among other things continuing to turn unemployment insurance, once a short-term cushion for job-seekers, into long-term government compensation for the unemployed. Part of the reckless debt escalation was caused by the last President unconscionably engaging in overseas combat in multiple theaters without having the courage or sense  to insist that the public pay for it, and the current administration is incapable of grasping that real money, not just borrowed funds, needs to pay for anything. The needle is well into the red zone on debt; we don’t have the resources for any discretionary military action.

Ron Paul thinks that’s a good thing, as do his libertarian supporters. President Obama, it seems, thinks similarly. They are tragically wrong. Though it is a popular position likely to be supported by the fantasists who think war can just be wished away, the narrowly selfish who think the U.S. should be an island fortress, and those to whom any expenditure that isn’t used to expand  cradle-to-grave government care is a betrayal of human rights, the abandonment of America’s long-standing world leadership in fighting totalitarianism, oppression, murder and genocide is a catastrophe for both the world and us. Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “The Darkness of the Right, Pissing Away American Values”

Is that you, Rod?

This is a treat. I was hoping that my post about the most ethically-challenged of the Right’s uber-patriots cheering corpse desecration would flush out a full-throated cheerleader, and here he is!

In his indignant reply to Bill ( a Marine himself), first time commenter Haddit (who, I gather, has “haddit” with all this ethics talk) gives a bravura performance of exactly what ethics-free thinking will get you in this and other war-related issues. It turns people into clones of the ridiculous general (played by the late, great Rod Steiger) in Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks,” whose nuanced response to every dilemma is “Kill! Kill! KILL!” ( I know, I know…in the movie it turns out that the general was right after all. It is a satire.)

Here is Rod’s, er, Haddit’s Comment of the Day (to Bill) on my post about the infamous pissing Marines, The Darkness of the Right, Pissing Away American Values. You’re welcome for the editing, Haddit. I’ll have some final comments after the featured rant:

“Are you kidding me? They should be punished?????? We train these guys and gals to be heart-breakers and life-takers, but “oh no don’t piss on the enemy”? I say we put all the bodies of our enemies in a giant blender and dump their remains on the cities where they lived and let’s see how long they screw with us. Desecrating bodies……….What does a bullet or a bomb do, man? War is being insane, doing insane things. Sane folks don’t KILL other folks. So, we teach em to be insane but with rules? THERE ARE NO STINKING RULES. KILL, KILL, KILL come the cries of our military men and women while in training. “WHAT MAKES THE GRASS GROW”???? “We don’t go to war to die for our country, we make the other poor bastard die for his country.” Continue reading

Presidents Day Ethics: The Presidents of the United States on Ethics and Leadership

In commemoration of President’s Day, Ethics Alarms presents the ethics wisdom of the remarkable men who have served their country in the most challenging, difficult, and ethically complicated of all jobs, the U.S. Presidency.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Presidents of the United States:

George Washington: “I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.” Continue reading

Why Lawyers Should Work “For Good”

Pro bono legal work (short for pro bono publico, or “for the public good”) is when lawyers take on cases free of charge. Some lawyers—and you know who you are!—would say that the primary reason to take on pro bono cases is that membership in the Bar requires it. That’s compliance, however, driven by non-ethical considerations, not ethics. There are excellent reasons to work pro bono that have nothing to do with being able to check off mandatory hours, and everything to do with the crucial roles lawyers have a duty to fulfill in a free society.

Georgia attorney Dawn Levine compiled this list of  “The Top Eight Reasons to Take Pro Bono Cases;” I recommend the whole article. Her list, however, should be posted on the walls of every attorney’s office. It represents the best aspirations of an unfairly maligned profession. Here it is… Continue reading

Remember Davy Crockett (and thank you, Fess Parker!)

If you don’t remember Fess Parker, who died this week as an 85-year-old winery owner, you missed the Fifties. Parker played Davy Crockett in Walt Disney’s TV miniseries about the lively Tennessee frontiersman, and did it with such sincerity and style that he not only turned coonskin caps into a national craze, he also rescued Davy Crockett from creeping obscurity. Continue reading