Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Accountability and the Employee of the People

by Nomad

An event some 35 years ago underscores a vital question that presidents and their staff too often ignore. The question of accountability.

Press Conference

On Oct. 15, 1982, at a White House press briefing, journalist Lester Kinsolving asked Reagan's Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes a simple question.
Had he heard the news about a new disease that doctors had detected among the gay community?

In fact, the initial detection of some kind of lethal pathogen was not a secret. On 5 June 1981, more than a year before that press conference, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's newsletter Morbidity and Mortality Weekly (MMWR) made a reference to five cases of an unusual form pneumonia in Los Angeles.

Even as late and October 1982, there still might have been means to control the spread. Warnings might have been issued. Medical experts could have been mobilized to determine how to prevent the spread or offer theories at the very least.
However, as we all know, that is not what happened.

The video below records that historic moment when a health crisis first emerged as a political issue.

What lessons, if any, can we learn from this incident?
Judging by the reactions (and on more than one occasion), a dying homosexual must have been an amusing idea. A real knee-slapper. Apart from the "entertaining" aspects of it, it appears to have been hardly worth even discussing at all.
That's a profoundly disturbing thing.

Whenever arrogance, immaturity, and incompetence in any administration are accepted as a routine, it can lead to serious consequences for the nation and for the world.
In this case, a threat to public safety became the source of a childish joke amongst people who should have known better.

Of course, you could offer excuses.
How could Larry Speakes have known how serious this problem would ultimately be? Nobody knew at the time. Not even doctors. So, you might say, isn't it a bit unfair? Isn't this just a case of Monday morning quarterbacking or 20/20 hindsight?

Perhaps it is. That could be missing the point.
If nothing else, a common sense of decency and empathy towards the sick and dying- gay or straight, rich or poor, black or white- should have kept the White House spokesman and all those who laughed in check. Both parties had a responsibility to take the issue much more seriously.
And they failed.

As horrifying as this incident might seem, it is the inevitable result of a certain mindset that's all too common in Washington and state capitals.

Pomposity and the President

In the 1982 example, the man President Reagan had selected to represent him before the press and so before the world revealed
a lack of serious-mindedness, of honesty and of maturity.
Many think a similar problem is happening again in the Trump administration with his spokespeople. However, in this case, people like Sean Spicer are not entertaining the press corp, but attacking them but at the same time, making a laughingstock of the Trump White House.

If a lack of seriousness and maturity can cause problems, there are also dangers caused by an attitude of exaggerated self-importance and, to use a fine Victorian word, pomposity.
*   *   *
It's not surprising that the highest office can easily become an intoxicant. It's a staggering amount of power to weld even if we discount the more obvious examples, such as the command of the US military and the world-destroying nuclear arsenal.

By the stroke of a pen, millions of lives can be changed, for worse or for better. With a hapless remark or a careless tweet, one person's fortune can be made or lost. That kind of power in the wrong hands can be terrifying. It's the kind of power we witness when President Trump signed his executive order on immigration ban. 

Servant, not Savior

Too often an elected politician or government official forgets that he or she is nothing more and nothing less than an employee of the state. His salary is paid the public as a whole, all of whom expect to be represented equally. They expect the president to earn his salary and to be forthright and direct, not shifty and deceptive. 
Framers of the constitution strongly believed that public office was to be a public service, not a means for self-enrichment, not a means of personal publicity. It also required as much transparency as national security reasonably permits. Above all, it was a position requiring the utmost seriousness and dedication.

Let's put this another way.
Would you keep an employee that lied to you? What about an employee that chose to hide information from you? An employee that refused to listen to experts because he thought he knew better? Would you retain an employee who, starting on his first day, began issuing orders to his boss and started bullying other employees and abusing supervisors?
Of course not.
Every small business owner knows what would happen to his/her enterprise if no action was taken. Your company would be in shambles in a month or two.
The same holds true for the president and all those he hires to assist him. 

In service to the entire population, the authority of the president is based on a contract he has made with the people on the day he is sworn into office. It is, more than anything else, a four-year legally-binding agreement which comes with plenty of strings attached, not a blank check. It is not a license to decide which laws he or she will or will not obey.

The title "Commander in Chief" is one that goes to the heads of a few presidents. Too often presidents, as well as their staff, forget they are not rulers over or saviors of, but servants to the public.

And not just some of the people and not just to the people that voted for them or the ones who claim to adore him.