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?