When I was a young military officer, the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force resigned, saying he was “out of step” with the civilian leadership. The reasons are still unclear—he has refused to clarify over the years. What we know is that understanding the sanctity of civilian control of the military, a well-respected, highly intelligent leader with a solid understanding of history and national policy decided to step down. He had too much respect for the institution to which he had committed his life, to the office he held, and to the overarching institutions of his nation to place his considerable reputation at odds with a solemn oath he took decades before.
Americans are now distressingly suspicious of the institutions General Fogelman once gave up his career to protect. Gallup maintains a poll of citizens’ confidence in 14 key U.S. institutions. These range from the military, police, organized religion, media, and business, to public schools. In the latest data the military maintains the highest confidence while the Congress has the lowest rating. An average of only 32% now say they have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the Gallup 14. There are myriad reasons for this precipitous fall, much of which can be laid at the feet of a right-wing propaganda operation without peer in our history. They have spent the better part of two decades telling aging Americans—the median age of Bill O’Reilly’s audience is over 70—that their government is not to be trusted.
There is a healthy and historical American suspicion of central governance, but during the campaign and early presidency these tendencies were harnessed to question even mundane data normally reserved for policy wonks and economics nerds like your correspondent. Department of Labor statistics on employment and the participation rate were called false. The candidate who became president famously said the unemployment rate had to be closer to 45%, a number he arrived at because of all the people with time on their hands to attend his rallies. The irony of such statistical “analysis” cannot possibly be overstated. More recently the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, a vital research organization for the complexities of modern governance, was attacked by Republicans who would rather not have waited for the CBO’s verdict on their decidedly less than “terrific” healthcare plan. But there is a more central reason Americans lack confidence in the Gallup 14 and, thankfully, one more easily rectified. That is that Americans have little respect for institutions whose own members show so little regard for their own offices.
The commander-in-chief accuses his predecessor of criminally surveilling him—a “fact” he learned from right-wing media—and attacks federal judges’ qualifications. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee runs to defend his president with non-news of “incidental collection,” something that was already known when the president’s first National Security Advisor lied about talking to the Russians. It turns out White House staffers provided that information…but he should have followed protocol and informed his committee before so blatantly declaring his loyalty to the executive he was charged with investigating. We are currently under duress from a foreign power undermining the electoral process, yet somehow in the halls of Congress this is a partisan issue.
The difference between these and a one-time Chief of Staff of the Air Force is that the general understood and lived by his oath, the same one taken by those above. It is to the Constitution and, therefore, to the country first. He demonstrated that the institution was more important than he. He had respect for the office he held and the duty it required, thereby setting an example for a generation of young officers. That is a part of what we call leadership.
When citizens do not have faith in the institutions that maintain the civility in civil society, when they are told for decades by those who hold office and the sympathetic media machines they must court that those very institutions cannot be trusted, when they begin to believe solely in the reputations of singular men who demonstrate no respect for the office they hold, it portends a dark time in our history. Americans’ faith in their institutions can be restored only when those who hold positions in those institutions begin to respect their own office. As is always the case when principle and character are in retreat, true leadership is required. It is the kind of leadership clearly exhibited by an honorable man who once was the highest-ranking member of the United States Air Force. It is the kind of leadership so utterly lacking in the legislative and executive branches today.