Five years out of law school I went to work for the newly elected Missouri Attorney General. He was distinctive. He had two graduate degrees from Yale; one in law and the other in divinity. He baptized and married our youngest daughter, Marcia. His name: John C. Danforth or Jack to friends or St. Jack to his critics.
My appreciation for that beginning has been underscored by today’s political mess and I am talking about more than former President Donald Trump’s actions preceding and following the January 6th attack on Democracy.
Words and phrases about the politics of kingdoms and tribes were first written on tablets; later printing technology and democracy widened the field. Now, writing a book about humble beginnings and self-catapulting success accompanies all national ambitions.
My life, as told by the political aspirant, introduces the ambitious to careful editing and ultimately to a pattern of robotic answers when questioned. Spinmeisters abound. Never in a democracy has candor been in such short supply. Let’s see, “should I support a candidate who won’t really tell me what he is thinking?”
Senator John McCain had been raised by an Admiral, told what to do by the Naval hierarchy at Annapolis and later by his captors in North Vietnam and still later by his political handlers. In part Senator McCain who was the Republican nominee for President in 2008 remained interesting because he didn’t take instruction. John McCain unplugged was a moral man because he meant what he said and was prepared to be judged by both his words and actions. He refused to hide.
And while I am on “unplugged” it is easy to imagine hundreds of intensely argued moments in the political life of Donald J. Trump. I am sure he must bristle at instruction, convinced he knows best. Yet, his originality in politics served him well, until it didn’t.
One of my later in life political lessons occurred in the aftermath of Trump calling McCain a loser. I was certain his characterization was a fatal error. What I failed to understand was the lure of Trump Unplugged.
Politicians and their enablers have lowered the standards; they are mostly scripted, although Hollywood doesn’t come calling. Years ago, I was on the set of the TV comedy Cheers. During a break in the filming Ted Danson quipped: “you people in Washington are just like us, we are all actors.” Well maybe, but the Washington version of acting is a façade to cover evasion and avoidance. Actors are a stories characters while most politicians are the real-life characters in what is often a bad script.
Morality in politics? We were given a vivid standard by a Republican Speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, Rusty Bowers. He made a notation in his diary after Trump and Rudy Giuliani teamed up to declare there was fraud in the Arizona election that Trump lost and insisted that he should refuse to certify the results. Rusty Bowers wrote:
In a Democracy Bowers’ words and actions writ large are all the protection we have. We get the morality we deserve. Perhaps there was a time when standards of morality were set at the top. They certainly were when I worked for Attorney General Danforth. More often today they are set at the bottom—the foundation. Politicians are free to say what they want; we should pay attention to what they do. If we can’t get it right, corruption will be our legacy.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.