Respect the Office; Restore the Faith

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.

Lessons from the Storybooks

Once upon a time, there was a little boy watching his flock. Should rescue from an apex predator be required, he was told, all he need do was call out. For reasons essential to the moral of the story, he falsely called one too many times before it was truly necessary. When the wolves finally descended upon him and his hapless sheep, no one felt obliged to indulge his continued neediness for companionship.

Something remarkably similar is happening as Democrats emulate that boy. Not every partisan slight uttered by a Republican is a travesty of justice. Not every alleged misdeed is a transgression of law, decency, or morality. But these truths go unrecognized by a liberal base animated to action by every gaffe, each misdirection on Twitter, or the laughable knots presidential spokespersons tie themselves into explaining the unexplainable.

A few weeks ago, the internet was aflutter with the news that a legislator had presented a constituent with a cease and desist letter. Oh, the humanity! This single constituent called over 100 times each day and generally made work impossible. Not known is the content of the caller’s messaging, but one suspects for someone as committed as this individual was, it could not have been all pleasantries and flower bouquets. There could hardly be a more “non” non-issue than this, while for instance, one fifth of the EPA’s budget is on the chopping block and 24 million citizens’ healthcare is falling under the axe.

Recently, calls for the Attorney General’s resignation spiked from the background noise of general distaste over the president’s cabinet picks. The call and accompanying accusation of perjury are overblown. Senator Sessions most certainly should have disclosed discussions with the Russian ambassador, but the accusation of perjury by laypeople with scant understanding of the law and a call for resignation that will most assuredly be ignored do little to engender a rebalancing of power among the legislative and executive branches. It is simply spitting into the wind. It achieves little and leaves you covered in your own…ineptitude.

Worst of all is a call from a far-left group to find an ideologically pure primary candidate to take on Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) as punishment for cabinet confirmation votes. This makes absolutely no sense. Trump “digs coal,” you might recall. So does Senator Manchin, so he voted to confirm a climate change denier as head of the EPA. He represents his constituents, as legislators in a representative democracy are supposed to do, but he’s a Democrat in a key seat in a deeply red state. He’s also an incumbent, and incumbents get reelected at ludicrously high rates. Should he be ousted by an ideologically pure, extreme liberal, what do you suppose that candidate’s general election prospects are in a state that went 68% for Donald Trump? It’s shaping up to be a self-satisfying ideological battle in the near term that loses another Senate seat in the long term. That—all of this—is ineffective politics.

Democrats are poised to make great gains in 2018 when the electorate begins to understand the president’s promises are either politically or structurally impossible. However, if they continue to chase every shiny object dangled by the populist-in-chief’s minions, voter fatigue from righteous indignation will ensue, credibility will be assailed, and no one will heed the call to trundle to the polls. Happily ever after will then be left to the storybooks, until someone—with objectivity to match their charisma—wakes the opposition from its coming self-induced slumber.

The Comforting Insulation of Bureaucracy

During the 2012 primaries, Republican candidate Rick Perry famously had an “oops” moment when he couldn’t remember that the Department of Energy, DOE, was one of three agencies he planned to close as president. In a move clearly aimed at thumbing a nose or raising a particular finger at the concept of government agencies in general, the man who claimed that he “alone” could fix what so many of his supporters think is ailing the country named the now-former governor to lead the department he once forgot but knew was unnecessary. It played to a sub-segment of the right-wing base who do not understand the inner workings of government but who, nonetheless, see nothing good in it. It led many liberals, many of whom also cannot comprehend such intricacies, to wail about the indiscretion and malice involved. It began, as did other similar finger-waving appointments, much hand-wringing among those who respect good governance. I’m here to alleviate some of those fears but also to break some bad news to those who cheer such divisive and irresponsible nominations.

When some were incredulous over Rick Perry’s nomination, I told them not to worry. I said that Gov. Perry was about to be taken behind vault doors and briefed at very high classification levels about all the things DOE does that no one knows about. I said he would emerge a changed man. During his confirmation hearing now-Secretary Perry said this, “My past statements…do not reflect my current thinking. In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination.” I believe him, but if other secretaries are not as open-minded, there is still hope.

When you work in government as a person of action, as I have done, bureaucracy can be infuriating. Its ability to throw up roadblocks to perceived progress is maddening. Civil servants, most of whom are patriots just trying to do their jobs right, are long-term employees who recognize and understand the transient nature of either elected officials or, in my case, military officers. As in any human endeavor, there is security in the status quo. Change is difficult to engineer and even more difficult to execute. Government agencies are rife with regulations and processes that ensure their actions comply with law and protect the interests of the American taxpayer. They are not known for their agility or ability to innovate. When I was a cadet we used to say of one of our sister academies that it harbored “over two hundred years of tradition unhampered by progress.” That is what government bureaucracy feels like when you are attempting change. Yet now, those human and institutional impediments are a buffer against the onslaught of the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” as presidential advisor—and false news purveyor—Steve Bannon recently put it.

That “administrative state” maintains clean water, safe food, access to markets, nuclear surety, consumer protections, breathable air, vehicle safety, energy access, and thousands of things that are important to all Americans. Some cabinet members, like Secretary Perry, will confront their long-standing but wholly unsupportable views on the agencies they now lead. Others, and Mr. Bannon, may well find their desire for destruction eventually ground to dust by the very bureaucracy they despise. If so, it will be by the will and principle of those lesser-known but far more deserving servants who have calmly gone about their duty during multiple administrations, be they conservative, liberal, or whatever this one is. Take comfort in that.