A Presidents Day Celebration (PART 3): When The Going Got Tough

 presidents.

The Presidents really get interesting now, as a political leadership culture in the U.S. matures, the stakes of failure become greater, and technology, labor upheaval, expanding big business and greater influence on world affairs transforms the Presidency into truly the toughest job on earth.

Grover Cleveland

grover

Another one of my favorites, Cleveland was known for telling the truth ( he as called “Grover the Good”), but he participated in one of the most elaborate deceptions in Presidential history.

As explained in historian Matthew Algeo’s 2011 book, “The President Is a Sick Man,”  President Cleveland noticed an odd bump on the roof of his mouth in the summer of 1893, shortly after he took office for the second time. (Cleveland is the only President with split terms, the hapless Republican Benjamin Harrison winning an electoral college victory that gave him four years as the bland filling in a Cleveland sandwich.) The bump was diagnosed as a life-threatening malignant tumor, and the remedy was removal. Cleveland believed that news of his diagnosis would send Wall Street and the country  into a panic at a time when the economy was sliding into a depression anyway, and agreed to an ambitious and dangerous plan to have the surgery done in secret. The plan was for the President to announce he was taking a friend’s yacht on a four-day fishing trip from New York to his summer home in Cape Cod. Unknown to the press and the public was that the yacht had been transformed into a floating operating room, and a team of six surgeons were assembled and waiting.

The 90 minute procedure employed ether as the anesthesia, and the doctors removed the tumor, five teeth and a large part of the President’s upper left jawbone, all at sea. They also managed to extract the tumor through the President’s mouth while leaving no visible scar and without altering Cleveland’s walrus mustache. Talking on NPR in 2011, historian said,

“I talked to a couple of oral surgeons researching the book, and they still marvel at this operation: that they were able to do this on a moving boat; that they did it very quickly. A similar operation today would take several hours; they did it in 90 minutes.”

But the operation was a success. An artificial partial upper jaw made of rubber was installed to replace the missing bone, and Cleveland, who had the constitution of a moose, reappeared after four days looking hardy and most incredible of all, able to speak as clearly as ever. How did he heal so fast? Why wasn’t his speech effected? He endures doctors cutting out a large chuck of his mouth using 19th century surgical techniques and is back on the job in less than a week? No wonder nobody suspected the truth.

Then, two months later, Philadelphia Press reporter E.J. Edwards published a story about the surgery, thanks to one of the doctors anonymously breaching doctor-patient confidentiality. Cleveland, who in his first campaign for the White House had dealt with Republican accusations that he had fathered an illegitimate child by publicly admitting it, flatly denied Edwards’ story, and his aides  launched a campaign to discredit the reporter. Grover the Good never lies, thought the public, so Edwards ended up where Brian Williams is now. His career and credibility were ruined.

Nobody outside of the participants knew about the operation and the President’s fake jaw until twenty-four years later, after all the other principals were dead except three witnesses.  One of the surgeons decided to  publish an article to prove that E.J. Edwards had been telling the truth after all.

This is a great ethics problem. Was it ethical for Cleveland to keep his health issues from the public? In this case, yes, I’d say so. Was it unethical for the doctor to break his ethical duty? Of course. Was Edwards ethical to report the story? Sure.

The tough question is: Was Cleveland ethical to deny the story and undermine the reporter’s credibility? I think it was a valid utilitarian move, and barely ethical: it was better for the nation to distrust one reporter than the President, especially when his secret was one he responsibly withheld, and his doctor unethically revealed. Continue reading

Ashley Judd, Hillary Clinton, and Celebrity Malpractice

Mount Rushmore

I had hoped to have my “Celebrity Code of Ethics” complete for this post, but it isn’t, so I’ll just allude to some of its likely provisions.

I like Ashley Judd, I really do. I’m not sure why she never became the reigning female light drama star of her generation; she’s every bit as good as Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts, and that voice! Now she’s routinely relegated to repetitious action movies and will be playing Jennifer Lawrence’s mother any day now—oh well, that’s show biz. Judd is also more articulate and intellectually curious than the average celebrity, so it was with great pain and disappointment that I learned that she had recently said this, in an interview with Larry King, about the presidential prospects of Hillary Clinton:

“I think she might be the most overqualified candidate we’ve had since – you know, Thomas Jefferson or George Washington.”

Now, I don’t expect celebrities to be historians or experts on anything  other than their profession and areas of specialty. However, one tenet of celebrity ethics is the same as that of doctors: “First, do no harm.” That means, for someone like Judd, a celebrity has an ethical duty to recognize that a disturbing number of people think that because she is rich and famous, she is necessarily  informed, responsible and wise, as well as a role model, and therefore, unlike the usual drunk on a barstool, when that celebrity says something outrageously ignorant, stupid and misleading, hundreds of thousands of people believe it and align their own beliefs accordingly. That’s harmful, and doing it is unethical. Continue reading

Anderson Cooper’s Reflections on Inheritance: Not Unethical, Perhaps; Just Ignorant, Self-Serving and Presumptuous

I was going to let this go, but it kept gnawing at me, and nobody in the news media called out Anderson Cooper on his outrageous misrepresentation of history and human character. I guess it’s up to me.

gloria-vanderbilt-anderson-cooper

“Thanks for nothing, Mom!”

Cooper is the son of fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt, and thus an heir to one of the most storied of American family fortunes. Apparently Cooper has known for some time that he’s getting none of his mother’s estimated 200 million dollar estate, and he told Howard Stern recently that he was fine about it, an had no bitterness or regrets.

“I don’t believe in inheriting money, ” he told Stern. “That’s a total fantasy … I think it’s an initiative-sucker, I think it’s a curse. Who’s inherited a lot of money who’s gone on to do things in their own life? If I felt that there was some pot of gold waiting for me, I don’t know that I would have been so motivated.”

As for his mother, who inherited many millions and who still made a name for herself by launching a  line of designer jeans, Cooper told Stern, “I think that’s an anomaly.”

Cooper is free to adopt whatever myths and rationalizations that help him get over the fact that his mother is cutting him off. He is not free to misinform the historically ignorant that a tendency exists which may describe his own mental state but which is far from the presumptive norm with others throughout the centuries. “Who’s inherited a lot of money who’s gone on to do things in their own life?” The answer to that question is “Too many to mention, Anderson. Are you kidding? Do you know anything about history?”

Just counting U.S. Presidents, which I think even in this period of reduced stature among White House occupants, would still qualify as “doing something with your life,” we have Washington, Madison and Monroe, all of whom inherited substantial property and assets from their families, as did William Henry Harrison and his grandson, Benjamin Harrison. Both Roosevelts inherited substantial wealth; so did William Howard Taft, whose family was (and is) one of the richest in the U.S. Both Bush’s managed not to let the curse of inherited wealth undermine their wills to succeed. Continue reading

Relax, Americans: The President Will Be A Good Man…Whoever He Is.

The good guys.

The degree of anxiety over today’s Presidential election—perhaps more accurate than anxiety is hysteria—is palpable. It is also unnecessary and foolish. I have read the fevered rantings of Andrew Sullivan, who fears Mitt Romney like the Germans feared the invading Russian army at the end of World War II, and the apocalyptic monologues of conservative radio talk show host Mark Levin, who is prone to statements like, “It’s over, that’s all! Do you understand? If Obama wins, this country is never coming back!” I have watched both parties exploit and encourage this kind of irrational fear, and its by-products, predictably, are hate, division and anger. There was a time in America when political adversaries referred to each other as “my honorable opponent.” The candidates were not more honorable then. We were more sensible.

The history of the United States has shown that very few truly bad men have the opportunity to run for President. It makes sense, if you give it a modicum of thought. A Presidential contender must negotiate the perils of life for at least four decades without accumulating damning evidence of disqualifying character traits and malign intent. The candidate must have shown sufficient ability and character to impress those he worked with and owed duties to. Most of all, a potential President must have been able to engender a sufficient amount of trust over more than half of his natural life.

We should not judge political leaders by the same standards as other professionals, because the nature of politics, by definition, is ethically ambiguous. Politics knows only one ethical system: utilitarianism. The practice of governing and making human progress advance in the civic arena rules out absolute principles, and requires delicate calculations of ends and means. This often appears, to non-practitioners, as corruption, and it certainly can become that. Effective, trustworthy leaders are able to avoid the occupational hazard of believing that the ends necessarily justify the means. If they cannot, they will not have the opportunity to be President. Continue reading

A Cautionary Ethics Tale From Texas

A Good Samaritan Teddy could relate to

In Texas, a 62-year-old man pulled over on the highway to help a couple whose truck had run out of gas. While he was assisting, the Good Samaritan apparently objected to the demeaning way the 31-year-old husband was addressing his wife, and said so. The husband then attacked the older man…who drew his concealed gun and shot him in the shoulder.

<sigh> Continue reading

Quote of the Day: Theodore Roosevelt

On this date in 1910, former President Theodore Roosevelt made his famous “Man in the Arena” speech, one of the most inspiring calls to courage and personal character ever spoken. Its most quoted passage is this:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

It’s an important quote, and not only because it carries the essence of a great man and leader. Teddy’s words should be revisited regularly by all those, including me, who stand on the sidelines passing judgment on the words and deeds of men and women who devote themselves to public service and elected office. It is not that we should not hold them to high standards and subject them to just criticism, for we should. We must always remember, however, that they have had the courage to undertake great responsibility and personal risk to accomplish what they believe is right, and though they may be misguided, mistaken, flawed or unsuccessful, they deserve our respect for that.

[Many thanks to my friend, Tom Vesper, a great trial lawyer and legal ethics specialist, for reminding me of the date and the speech.]

Unethical U.S. Presidential Candidacies: Is Trump’s the All-Time Worst?

There have been many unethical candidacies for U.S. President in American history, and some of them have been successful.

I am not referring to unethical candidates for the job, for there have been too many of them to count. An unethical candidacy occurs when a candidate’s purpose for seeking the job, method of doing so, and/or the effect on the nation of his or her campaign is especially reckless, harmful, or irresponsible. Perhaps the first unethical candidacy was that of Aaron Burr, who attempted to exploit a flaw in the election process to steal the presidency from his position as a vice-presidential candidate. Rutherford B. Hayes allowed himself to be put in office by an undemocratic back-room deal when his opponent, Samuel Tilden should have won both the popular and electoral vote.

Teddy Roosevelt’s decision to oppose his old friend, President Taft, in 1912, splitting his party, breaking his word (he had earlier refused to run for what was in essence a third term, agreeing it was best to hold to George Washington’s tradition), and all-but-insuring Woodrow Wilson a victory, was an exercise in ego and hubris. Eight years later, Sen. Warren G. Harding, who privately expressed doubts about his ability to fill the highest post in the land, may have allowed himself to be manipulated and used by corrupt political operatives for their own purposes. Franklin Roosevelt recklessly ran for his fourth term knowing that he was seriously and perhaps terminally ill, and didn’t take care to ensure that he had a competent Vice-President. (He, and the U.S., were lucky in that regard.)

Gov. George Wallace’s third party presidential run in 1968 was explicitly racist. The beneficiary of that candidacy, President Richard Nixon infamously pursued re-election with a new low of unethical and even illegal tactics against the Democrats. There have been others.

Donald Trump’s revolting candidacy, as yet unannounced, cannot fairly be called the most unethical presidential candidacy, but it is early yet. It may well prove to be one of the most harmful. As the United States faces some of the most difficult challenges in its history, Trump has chosen to use the nation’s process of deciding on its leader for his own ego gratification and self-promotion, without  preparation for the job, deference to fair campaign rhetoric, or acknowledgment of his own fatal flaws as a candidate. 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

Tucson Aftermath: Don’t Let The Barn Door Close On Freedom, Please

In the wake of Jared Loughner’s attack, the “barn door fllacy” is in full operation as intensely, and foolishly as I’ve ever seen it. Everyone from social reformers to yellow-bellied Congress members are proposing changes and suggesting “dialogues” aimed at stopping Jared Loughner’s completely unpredictable conduct, which, they seem to forget, has already occurred. Almost always, when everyone rushes to lock the metaphorical barn door after the horse is gone, they make the barn and everything around it uglier, less useful, more expensive, and less respectful of basic human dignity and freedom: witness the TSA’s outrageous new pat-down procedures, designed to stop 2009’s exploding underpants terrorist, who was unsuccessful. Continue reading

Ethics Hero: President Obama

According to a tweet today from Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, President Obama has quit smoking,

A president’s habits, be it “the vigorous life” of Teddy Roosevelt, not wearing a hat, like Jack Kennedy, or regarding fellatio from interns as “not sex,” as Bill Clinton did, have the power to change public attitudes and conduct for better or worse. This must have been an especially difficult time for Barack Obama to quit his long-time smoking habit, which typically is a response to stress. Despite perhaps the most stressful period in his life, the President did the right thing, and as good leaders must, to set an example.

We will never know for sure how much or how many, but his responsible conduct will undoubtedly change some behavior, and save some lives.