Diary of a Friendly Neighborhood Public Servant

folded flag

17 years ago, I had my first exposure to how political decisions can have an effect on the lives of Americans.  My brother served in the U.S. Navy on board the U.S.S. Cole.  While in port, off the coast of Yemen, a smaller vessel sped towards the hull of the ship and detonated an explosive in an attack that claimed my brother’s life as well as the lives of 16 others.  Naturally, I was devastated, as was my family.  We’ve never lost anyone this close this suddenly or violently.  At that time in American history, such a terrorist attack was unheard of and the attention of the nation was focused on our family, as was most of our political leaders.  My family received calls of condolences from senators, congressmen, former, current and future candidates for President, and most notably the President of the United States at the time, Bill Clinton.

Wanting to meet with our families and those injured during the attack, President Clinton had all of us gathered at one location prior to our memorial service.  It was an interesting feeling, knowing we were going to be meeting and speaking with the President of the United States of America.  On one hand, we were angry and wanted desperately to have an outlet for that anger and he was a convenient target coming to us.    We were certain to give him an earful for the decisions he made that lead to my brother’s death.  However, he was still the President of the United States of America, the Leader of the Free World, effectively the most powerful and most important person on Earth.  And that was Bill Clinton.  It’s one thing to be an influential, charismatically-gifted man, but to be that AND President of the United States of America was awe-inspiring to say the least.  Yet, STILL responsible for the depth of sorrow my mother, father and brothers and I were feeling then.  These were two divergent emotions going on in my head as he made his way through the building where we were.  There were many of us gathered in attendance, nearly 40 injured and family members of 17 sailors along with other naval personnel, so I had time to gather myself and focus on what I had to tell him, what I wanted him to hear.  But the longer we waited, the more we begin to realize there was a LOT of time passing by as the President made his way through.  We begin to wonder what was taking him so long to get through a room, to shake hands and nod and do what politicians do.  When he finally made his way to our family we found out why.  President Clinton’s eyes were red, welled up with tears.  He had been crying the entire time.  He forced himself to apologize to each and every one of us, to hear each and every one of us and to own what his own actions caused.  Needless to say, it was the last thing we expected.  Afterall, it was MY brother that had died.  Yes, my emotions were frayed and all over the place.  I was excited to meet the President but wanted to tell him about the impact that his decision to have my brother’s ship dock at an unsafe port had on my life, but it was clear he felt it as well.  Not just the impact it had on my life, but what it did to all of our lives.  And to see us all at once, one after one, of the lives he was responsible for shattering, it was understandably overwhelming.  At a time where I expected the leader of our nation to comfort me in my time of mourning, as it turned out I almost felt it incumbent upon me to actually comfort him instead.

That was where human empathy meets political implications.

It wasn’t long after (and to a large part because of) my brother’s death, I began a career in politics.  Not as a prototypical politician.  But working in the field of politics and government, most people have very little conception of the “bells and whistles” that goes on within any elected body.  That’s where I found my niche.  Since it was the decision-making of our elected leadership that lead to tragedies like the one I experienced, I felt a responsibility to not just to make sure we have the right leaders to make the right decisions, but to also hold them accountable to those decisions.  I filled the role as a legislative staffer and political campaign organizer.  In each of these roles, I assisted those in office and those seeking to be elected in a variety of capacities.  And if in case you cannot conceive, let me scope it out.  Any elected official has the duty to represent thousands, if not millions of people.  It is near-impossible for any one person, no matter how talented to know the individual desires and hopes of each person they represent.  This is where the machinery behind the scenes come in.  Information about the constituencies are funneled in, ordered and addressed as prioritized.

I explain this because as a staffer of such an elected official, there is an expectation to have the elected official fully informed and briefed about every detail of what they are being asked to do.  They are briefed on laws they’re voting on.  They’re briefed on events that affect their constituents.  They are also briefed on what they do on a day-to-day basis and who they meet with.  They know who they’re meeting.  Why they are meeting this person.  What this person wants.  What they may need to obtain from this person.  They are given background information about the person or persons they meet.  This is all in an effort to give the idea that they are as fully informed and of the utility we expect them to be to hold such positions of power.

Of course this is not always the case.

Earlier this month, 12 soldiers from the United States 3rd Special Forces Group were ambushed by a group of insurgents linked to the Islamic State(ISIS). Four of those soldiers were killed in the attack, which initially went unnoticed by the American public for several days. However, once brought to the nation’s attention, the President of the United States was encouraged to give a call and offer condolences to the families of those who were killed in the attack. Very similarly to what President Clinton did with my family. But upon placing a call to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, it was leaked by a family friend and member of Congress that the President’s call to Mrs. Johnson was extremely unpleasant, off-putting and disturbing. The President of course combated these assertions. I don’t know exactly how he can tell how someone else feels about something he said, but according to him, he and Mrs. Johnson had a pleasant conversation and that the Congresswoman was flat-out wrong and that she lied to the press. The President’s Chief of Staff backed up his claim.

There’s a truth within this matter. And although that truth really should have been kept between the President and Mrs. Johnson, it hasn’t. Mrs. Johnson firmly believes that not only the President wrongly pronounced her husband’s name, but was dismissive of what she was going through. That was confirmed by the congresswoman who was there. Of course the President’s version of events differs. But there is no doubt about a couple of things. The President of the United States, like President Clinton before him, is a public servant. He serves the public that elected him. The President’s Chief of Staff claims that he, like I, fully briefed the elected official that he serves, about who he was speaking with, telling him the correct pronunciation of Sgt. Johnson’s name, perhaps some additional details about his life and career in service. Whether the President was correctly briefed, as his Chief of Staff claims remains to be seen. He should have been, but given a consistent pattern of disregard of information and counsel of greater judgement, it’s likely immaterial whether he was properly briefed or not. The president has proven to not be the most attentive to detail. However, what should take over from there is human emotion and reaction to the pain another is experiencing. Human empathy would tell most of us to not exacerbate the pain another is feeling. And if you unintentionally do, you take responsibility for that mistake as to not cause more pain. Getting into a VERY public disagreement with a widow of a man that was just killed that you were responsible for absolutely qualifies as exacerbating the pain of another, intentionally or otherwise. And if you are insisting of exacerbating that pain or negligent of what they are going through and more concerned about your own public perception, then it’s fully probable that you lack the ability to empathize with another. And as an elected leader, if you lack the ability to connect with the human emotions of another in any way, particular one as essential and intrinsic as empathy then how could you possibly be expected to be the public servant they need?

 

 

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Those Who Can Do, Those Who Can’t Run

john adams

This is John Adams.  Not Founding Father and second President of the United States, John Adams, but Richmond, Virginia lawyer and 2017 Republican candidate for Attorney General, John Adams.  John Adams is not a politician, as his ads will repeatedly tell you.  He’s never held political office.  Never sought a political office.  He is running as a outsider.  And he’s not alone.  Two years ago, Donald Trump began his campaign for president with a similar theme.  A non-politician that will “drain the swamp” and run government “like a business”, pointing to all the actual politicians and blaming them for the ills of the state of government.  This is a common theme with Republicans running for office, to tote their inexperience in and with politics and governing as a good thing.  And it doesn’t just stop with candidates.  It extends to those in office, appointed or otherwise.  The President has filled his cabinet with those who not just lack experience with government but insist that it makes them more capable for their job.  Earlier this month, Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson was confronted with a news story of some “criticism” of the president that he was to have reportedly said.  Of course when one administration official verbally insults another, that’s definitely newsworthy.  Particularly when it’s a president who has made “insult” synonymous with “presidential”.  Yet, when asked about it, Tillerson dodged, saying he “doesn’t understand Washington” and “not from here” as if his being an outsider inoculates himself from the inside politics that they all are subjected to.  Betsy DeVos, Steve Mnuchin, Wilbur Ross and Ben Carson, along with Tillerson, have no significant experience in government and that isn’t just okay, but it was a positive quality of benefit to being selected as cabinet offiicials.

But in what Bizzaroworld Back Assward Universe is this ever a good thing?

When has not having experience or familiarity with what you’re dealing with not a bright red flag?  This weekend millions of Americans will watch football and there have been some pretty significant injuries on field.  Try to imagine a back up quarterback coming in the game and say “I’m not a football player, so I’m not tainted by all the back-breaking, body-aching running and hitting the football players do.”  Or one day, you or a loved one is hurt, you go to the E.R. and doctor tells you “I’m not really a doctor, but I know better than all of those nurses and orderlies and I’ll just get rid of them.”  Does this sound reasonable?  How about this; We’re still pretty early in the school year, so it isn’t hard to imagine going to school for your kid’s parent-teacher conference and you walk in the classroom and you hear the teacher say “I’m not a teacher but my experience putting up the dry wall at the new Arby’s qualifies me to get your child to pay attention, while managing an entire classroom.”

That is not how the real world works.  In no sector or institution of life or society where your well-being is dependent on another would you ever be, not only okay with their ignorance of the institution you need them to be knowledgeable about, but you prefer their inexperience over someone that actually KNOWS their profession and what they’re doing.  But for some reason Republicans think this is a badge of honor.

Granted, the entire idea of a Democracy is a government of the people.  It is not an aristocracy or a monarchy, where there’s a specific class or sect of persons that are groomed to lead or expected to govern.  We select our representatives and leaders of those among us.  That’s why this strategy is so appealing to their party.  They are supposed to be everyday people that share the same hopes and fears as the rest of us, which gives them the knowledge to be better stewards of our lives.  Of course that’s the idea in theory.  In practice, almost EVERYONE have had some elected or political experience with government in some fashion.  All but one of our Presidents have had at least some direct or indirect relationship with government.  That one is our current one. (Yes, four others have not held political office, but those four also just won wars in which they served and answered directly to the governing bodies.)  Moreover, for anyone attempting to achieve higher office whether it be governor or senator or even congressman, more often than not, they’ve held office before on a lower state or city level.

However, what’s more important than holding elected office is the institutional knowledge that comes with that office.  The knowledge of what works, who to work with, how it works, why does it work.  A lot of that comes with time, but it also comes with those around you.  If a teacher needs help in a classroom, they can ask another teacher.  If a doctor needs help with a patient, the doctor has a nurse.  A quarterback as a whole team that helps win the game.  If you do not have the experience, you bank on those that do.  Aaron Rogers didn’t win the Super Bowl, the Green Bay Packers did.  When I had my surgery, the O.R. doctor wasn’t alone.  I know because there was an anesthesiologist that put me under.  I was not educated by just my 2nd grade teacher.  I am a product of an entire school system of over 50 teachers and a half dozen schools.

And it is here is where the Republican “But I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night” Philosophy falls apart.  Attorney General Candidate John Adams isn’t the neophyte he claims to be.  He’s been involved in Republican politics, donating to Republican candidates for years.  He’s hired a campaign staff that has run not just a capable and credible statewide campaign, but are political veterans of multiple Virginia campaigns.  His ads attacking Attorney General Mark Herring are your standard “liberal” attacks, blaming him for not doing his job or using his job for political gain.  If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it definitely did not stay in the Holiday Inn Express.

Likewise, the president is no different either.  Quite frankly he’s taken it to a pathetic new level.  Despite the belief that he’s the everyman that is beyond petty politics, he’s the worst kind.  In a institution where money interest often dominate the narrative, he has been the literal “Middle Man” between both Democrats and Republicans and the interest of those that are not of the people.  That is beyond his insistence on inserting his unrelenting ignorance on foreign matters, social and domestic matters and his predecessor’s every decision.  Which doesn’t even begin to describe his association with the movement he lead with every authority on questioning the right, ability and education of President Barack Obama.  Yet, I’m supposed to believe he’s not a politician.

And this is a the cycle repeats itself.  And the people are duped into believing this bullshit.  In a vain attempt to pretend they’re something new and different, they’re actually just another cog in the political machine.  But if you choose to believe them, do.  Just realize you would never want a player that’s never played the game before.  Or a doctor that’s never practiced.  Or a teacher who has never taught.  So why would you want one to govern who’s never governed?  Who takes pride in his unfamiliarity with governing?  You do because you know it’s bullshit just as well as they do.  And with that, you can call yourself blind or you can call yourself dumb.  Not really a middle ground.

You know who they are.

So when you hear them say “I’m not a politician,” ignore them.  They are.  What they’re really telling you is that they’re shit at being one.