RANCHO SANTA FE, CA., June 13, 2011 – Congressman Anthony Weiner’s tearful apology for his unacceptable behavior has taken front stage in the media for an increasing number of days. His party’s leadership, which initially offered tepid support, is now sensing collateral political damage and is calling for him to step down. In an effort to overcome demands for his resignation, he has pulled the “addictive/rehab” hybrid from his bag to help him get out of the “Woods.” In the meantime, the economy is still in the tank, and our politicians have welcomed the distraction.
Does Congressman Weiner deserve the puerile jokes that media pundits seem unable to resist? Were it not for the unfortunate burden of his surname, perhaps he would have been spared … at least to the degree that those who broke ground in this area before him were (e.g., Clinton, Condit, Craig, Ensign, Foley, Frank, Lee, Massa, McGreevey, Sanford, Souder, Spitzer, Studds, Vitter, and the Kennedy of your choice … to name just a few from both sides of the aisle). Some resigned … some still serve in their official capacities. Are we just a tolerant society, or have we become so desensitized to such transgressions that morals don’t matter?
As Alexander Pope once said, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Certainly, anyone can make a mistake. Who among us hasn’t? However, should distinctions be made?
It is one thing for people to err early in their lives when they lack experience and a mature appreciation for the consequences of their actions. It is another matter of when they should have evolved beyond that point. When someone decides to represent the People, an even higher standard should be applied.
Elected officials are inherently imbued with power … and with that power should come a greater sense of responsibility. Men (and women) who hold political office should not leverage their position to attract the sexual attention of others. In today’s political environment, the situation is exacerbated by the fact that, in many instances, the elected officials are married and of considerably greater years than the parties upon whom they prey.
Part of the problem is that our public officials no longer view themselves as “civil servants.” For many, there is nothing “civil” about their behavior, and they prefer to be served than to serve. Their sense of personal entitlement is profound.
Rather than being classified as “civil servants,” our politicians are more frequently positioned as celebrities. Perhaps we should hope that they be cast in the next Celebrity Apprentice.1 That would occupy them and Mr. Trump … a veritable two-for-one deal!
The greatest problem with “celebrity” status is that we attribute too much credibility to it (see A Star is Born in the Leadership and Procedural Reform section of The National Platform of Common Sense).
For the past several years, it was difficult to find a news program that didn’t feature Congressman Weiner arguing his position as if it were fact. He was often arrogant and condescending, but that just made for “good TV.” His recent apology shouldn’t have come as a big surprise; he had been misrepresenting “the truth” for years.
Accepting Congressman Weiner’s “explanation,” maybe everything he has said in the past should be similarly categorized as “a joke.” We probably just aren’t smart enough to get his brand of humor. Perhaps the best course of action is to allow him to continue to serve. We should just take away his cell phone, block his use of the Internet, and ground him for a month … or at least until his grades improve.
Trusting our officials to “do the right thing” doesn’t seem to be working. About half of them step down when they violate our trust while the other half remain in office.
The Constitution speaks to presidential Impeachment with nebulous language that refers to “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” to go along with the more clearly defined “Treason” and “Bribery” (Article II, Section 4). Within the context of English Common Law at the time (which formed the basis of our Constitution), the term “Misdemeanors” meant something different than it does today lest you think the President can be impeached for jaywalking.
The more interesting descriptive term is “high.” Once again, it does not mean “high” in the colloquial sense with respect to government officials who may or may not have inhaled. Instead, many Constitutional scholars believe that the term was meant to imply that elected officials who hold “high” offices should be held to a higher standard of conduct. Imagine that!
Similarly, Article I, Section 5 states, “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behavior, and, with the Concurrence of two-thirds, expel a Member.” Of course, as we all know, expulsion from “the Good Old Boys’ Club” almost never occurs. You have to have done something truly dastardly AND proven that you can no longer raise money or otherwise positively impact your party’s chances.
That being said, what if we were to apply a private-sector solution to our politicians? What if we were to have them enter into a binding Ethics Agreement before they could even run for office or, at the very least, before they can serve? Senior executives often have ethics clauses in their employment contracts. Heck! Even “celebrities” occasionally have ethics clauses in their contracts. Maybe that’s the way to get politicians to embrace the idea; tell them they cannot officially become “celebrities” without signing an Ethics Agreement.
The Ethics Agreement could be fairly straightforward. It would require the candidates to act with integrity, honesty, truthfulness, and adherence to an absolute obligation to safeguard the public trust. It would require them to exercise their best judgment and to make decisions that are in the public’s best interest with disregard for any other influence.
Ethics Agreements also typically require that one adhere to the spirit as well as the letter of all applicable laws and regulations. Let’s include that for good measure.
They also generally require that one avoid even the appearance of any criminal offense or professional misconduct. Okay, that may be a tough one for a lot of our candidates to swallow, but we’re making the rules here!
Ethics Agreements also traditionally have an “honors” provision of some kind that requires one to report any transgressions against such ethical principles and standards (including one’s own). That would spare us from a week’s worth of “I didn’t do it; this is just a vicious political attack” denial press conferences … followed shortly thereafter by the inevitable and usually disingenuous “I’m sorry for the pain I have caused” apology press conferences.
Incorporating the key concepts of the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence might help as well. Something to remind candidates of the “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal” and that every citizen has “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” … regardless of the individual’s sex, race, religion, orientation, affiliation, etc. This could provide some needed direction when elected officials are otherwise tempted to apply their personal prejudices to a given situation.
We might even want to throw in something about how all of their decisions should be driven to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence (sic), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Wow! Those are great ideals. How did I come up with them? I must be gifted!
Seriously though, in a nation of at least 225 million adults who can run for public office, you’d think we could find 536 competent individuals at the federal level who would be willing to commit to a Code of Ethics and adhere to it for at least the limited period of their terms. What they do as private citizens, before and after, is their own business. However, the day they decide to represent the rest of us in “high” public office … on our dime … is our business. While we can’t trust our “celebrities” to behave with proper decorum, we have the right to demand it from our public officials.
T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States and the first nominee of the Whig Party in over 150 years.
This article first appeared in T.J. O’Hara’s recurring column, The Common Sense Czar, in the Communities Section of The Washington Times.