Public Service In The Age Of Trump

Donald Trump Ronald Reagan comparison photo

Achieving good outcomes is rightly the key barometer of success in government, but it is not everything – selflessly serving the public with honour and dedication matters too

Today I had the pleasure of attending a London Film Festival screening of “The Final Year”, a documentary by Greg Barker focusing on the last year of President Obama’s administration with a specific focus on foreign policy.

Regular readers will know that foreign policy is not my area of expertise, and rarely discussed on this blog. I only know enough to recognise that I am not qualified to pass blanket judgment on diplomatic and foreign policy issues which are fiendishly complex, rely on tremendously detailed knowledge of foreign cultures and regimes, and often require unbearably difficult decisions to be made in fraught circumstances with competing political demands, imperfect information and no crystal ball to see the future.

But it was difficult to watch the documentary and fail to conclude that the main protagonists – former Secretary of State John Kerry, United States ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes – discharged their duties diligently and with honour. One may not have agreed with all that these individuals did or the political outlook which guided their actions while serving in the Obama administration, but if so these were mere policy differences, not alleged deficiencies of character or behaviour.

It was also difficult to view the documentary and not feel a pang of shame at the composition and antics of the present administration, which even at its dubious best never seemed as functional as its predecessor, and which will certainly now struggle to attract talented, conscientious public servants given the scandals and negative publicity constantly roiling the White House.

Human beings have a tendency to impugn motives and presume character defects in people in public life based on our political differences with them. If we disagreed with the policies of Barack Obama then he also conveniently happened to be a dangerous socialist interloper who simply doesn’t love America the way that you or I love America. And if we disagreed with Mitt Romney or John McCain it was because they were heartless, selfish individuals devoid of charity or empathy, not due to the fact that these conservatives simply saw a different pathway to achieving a just and prosperous society.

This is not a new phenomenon. Republicans questioned the motives and character of Democrats in the Clinton administration; Democrats questioned the motives and character of Republicans in the Bush administration; Republicans had a very lucrative turn questioning the motives and character of Democrats in the Obama administration, and now everybody but the most partisan loyalists can be found expressing grave doubts about the motives character of many of those serving in the Trump administration.

And historically speaking, many of these negative judgments have been unfair. Most staffers in any administration serve out of a sense of public duty with real respect for the offices which they hold, and to impugn their motives at a time in their lives when they are trying to do good is churlish, particularly when there is no evidence of malfeasance.

But this time it feels different. Be it known or suspected acts of misconduct in office or the very public and unatoned-for personal failings of senior officials, the things we already know about less than nine months into the Trump administration should give us grave concern about the calibre of leadership in Washington, regardless of whether or not we agree with the general thrust of policy.

A few weeks ago, the masterful Peggy Noonan (speechwriter to President Ronald Reagan and a personal hero of mine) wrote a particularly moving column for the Wall Street Journal. In it, she conjured a moment of pure escapist fantasy, an alternate reality where all of the dreadful things we know to be true about people in the Trump administration – from the president on downwards – turned out to be nothing more than silly misunderstandings.

Noonan wrote:

I saw this: The exhausted woman on the shelter cot was surrounded by stressed children when Melania came over, bent down and asked, “How are you doing?” The woman said “Well—hurricane.” She realized who she was talking to and got flustered. “Those are nice shoes,” she said. They were flat ankle-boots, the kind you wear on the street or the park, only of the finest leather. “Thank you,” said Melania. She saw the woman’s soggy sneakers. “What size do you wear?” she asked, “Oh, 9,” said the woman. “They got bigger with the kids.”

Melania took off her boots and put them on the woman’s feet. She did this in a way that was turned away from the press, so they wouldn’t see. The woman’s daughter said, “Mommy, they’re nice.” Melania took from her bag a pair of white sneakers, put them on, and said, “Oh good, these are so comfortable.” They talked some more and Melania left and the mother looked to her kids and said, softly, “These are the first lady’s shoes.”

[..] This happened just before the Mnuchin story got cleared up. The Treasury secretary had not asked for a government plane to take him on his honeymoon. His request got all bollixed up in transmission, but there was a paper trail. It turned out he was waiting at the airport with his new wife when he saw a guy in Army fatigues comforting a young woman in a white and yellow dress. She was crying. Mr. Mnuchin sent over an aide to find out what’s wrong.

The guy in fatigues had literally just flown in from Kabul. He and the woman had just married, in a chapel down the street. They’d been bumped from their honeymoon flight to Bermuda. Mr. Mnuchin said: “Give them my plane. Louise—we’re flying commercial.” They booked seats on the next flight to France and went to duty free, where they bought the best champagne and placed it in her Hermès bag. They wrote a note: “Every soldier on leave deserves a honeymoon, every bride deserves champagne.” The couple discovered the bag on the plush leather seat just as the pilot was saying: “Please be seated and buckle up, we’ve got special clearance.”

The column continued in the same hopeful vein – Trump was shown to be unexpectedly humble and empathetic beneath his braggadocious facade, and at one point Hillary Clinton’s post-election book “What Happened” turned out not to be a self-indulgent, self-exculpatory exercise in blame-shifting but rather a sincere and thoughtful atonement for the collective sins of the American political establishment.

But of course, none of these positive, hopeful things actually happened. In all cases, the facts as first reported by the media turned out to be the depressing truth. Noonan said of her reverie:

It made me feel proud, like there’s hope for our political class.

That is what I saw this week.

I should note—this part is true—that I saw much of it while anesthetized for a minor surgical procedure. For an hour afterward, even knowing it was either a fantasy or a dream, I felt so . . . hopeful. Cheerful. Proud. I give it to you.

It is impossible to read Peggy Noonan’s column without aching for a time when public service was a calling reserved for people of character and principle, even if that time exists only in our imaginations, false memories or old episodes of The West Wing.

This is not to say that the Obama administration represented some high watermark of moral behaviour in office. Former Attorney General Eric Holder was less than truthful more than once in his testimony to Congress, while the IRS under senior executive Lois Lerner was found to be singling out conservative organisations for additional tax scrutiny and harassment. But even adjusting for anti-conservative bias in the media, the Obama administration comported itself with considerably more dignity than has thus far been shown by the constantly rotating cast of Trump officials. And it would take a significant change of trajectory, bordering on the miraculous, for this assessment to change.

Is it really possible that in four or eight years’ time we will look back on the people who serve in the present administration, who now represent the federal government to its citizens and the United States of America to the world, and think of them as sincere, hardworking and well-intentioned (if sometimes flawed and mistaken) public servants?

Is Rex Tillerson – a man who showed little interest in foreign policy beyond its applicability to the oil industry prior to his nomination as Secretary of State – presently losing sleep at night trying to implement a foreign policy vision that he sincerely believes will make America and the world safer and more prosperous, as John Kerry did? Are Trump’s other cabinet secretaries maintaining the dignity of their offices and the commitment to fiscal rectitude which is supposed to be a fundamental Republican selling point, or are they all behaving like former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and current Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, abusing their offices and the public trust by showering themselves with unnecessary perks on the public dime?

And even if Trump apologists, knowing the administration to be deficient in these areas, are willing to sacrifice these qualities for the greater good of bringing down an establishment which ironically seems to be strangely ascendant within the current White House, are the benefits of this governmental shock therapy really worth the side-effects of employing such a motley group of charlatans and opportunists to follow in the footsteps of better men and women?

Watching “The Final Year” at the Odeon Leicester Square today, I could certainly understand how people might feel sceptical or even angry about some of John Kerry’s priorities as Secretary of State and those of his former boss, or be rubbed up the wrong way by the opinionated Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power. Theirs is a specific worldview with which not everybody agrees. But it is also evident that they are patriots one and all, serving the country that they love to the best of their abilities and in line with the values which they believe were twice vindicated by the election of Barack Obama as president. Based on what we know, it would certainly be very difficult to accuse any of these Obama administration alumni of being self-serving, superficial or corrupt in their duties.

I hope that when the time comes to look back on the current presidency, we will be able to say the same of all those who presently serve in the Trump administration.

I sincerely hope so, but I am not optimistic.

 

The Final Year will be released in cinemas in the US & UK in January 2018.

       

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Kerry Gaffes; The Russians Blink

Andrew Sullivan seems as taken aback by this new development as I am, but it appears that John Kerry’s apparent gaffe may actually have opened the door for a new, potentially better outcome in Syria – Assad turning over Syrian weapons to the international community in order to prevent a strike. It is both sad that no one seemed to think of this idea before John Kerry misspoke at the podium, but encouraging that a properly international resolution to the chemical weapons issue (though obviously not the Syrian confict) could be reached without the need for anyone to start lobbing Tomahawk cruise missiles. Assuming that the US State Department doesn’t go too far in walking back Kerry’s off-the-cuff words, this could be just the framework that everyone needs in order to fix the problem while saving face at the same time.

The Dish

US Secretary of State John Kerry Visits The UK

In his latest stream of unpersuasive self-righteousness, John Kerry today threw out an idea. Instead of threatening an imminent military strike, Kerry actually got creative:

Asked if there were steps the Syrian president could take to avert an American-led attack, Mr. Kerry said, “Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting.”

He was, apparently, just being hypothetical. The State Department had to walk him back:

“Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used,” Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said in an e-mail to reporters after Mr. Kerry’s comments. “His point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with…

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Kerry: Free War!!!

The concept of a “Free War” with the tab picked up by Middle-Eastern “allies” such as Saudi Arabia is never a good idea, as blogger Jonathan Turley eloquently points out. Reading this piece made me think back to Rachel Maddow’s excellent book “Drift”, in which she discusses the various ways that it has become easier for America to slide into wars around the country with less and less political debate or oversight to authorise the action. One of the key points that Maddow makes is the fact that because recent wars have been kept off the books, budget wise, the American public is much more likely to support a war when there will be no additional taxation demanded of them to fund it – thus enabling the warmongers Dick Cheney and George W Bush. Kerry’s attempt to sell military action in Syria based on the nebulous idea that Arab countries might pay part or all of the cost is just a continuation of this same trend – trying to coax people into supporting a heavy-handed, militaristic foreign policy entailing lots of foreign wars with the promise that it will not cost them anything.

JONATHAN TURLEY

220px-John_Kerry_official_Secretary_of_State_portrait187px-Vince_Offer_at_Rosebowl_FleamarketThis week Secretary of State John Kerry became the Sham-Wow man for the latest war by the United States. Here is how a Sham-War pitch works. Kerry announced that the Arab countries will pay for our entire war if we invade Syria. That’s right, we can simply rent out U.S. personnel like mercenaries for Saudi Arabia and Gulf nations. First we have Nancy Pelosi explaining the war literally in five-year-old terms and now John Kerry doing his imitation of Offer “Vince” Shlomi.

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The Sheer Unimportance of North Korea

The press coverage lavished on the every theatrical ranting of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and his propaganda machine is rapidly becoming ridiculous.

Reports The Telegraph:

That American pledge to defend South Korea and Japan is crucial to deterring the North from full-scale war. “Kim Jong-un has to understand, as I think he probably does, what the outcome of conflict would be,” said Mr Kerry.

“I think we have lowered our rhetoric significantly and we are attempting to find a way for reasonableness to prevail here,” he added. “The rhetoric that we are hearing from North Korea is simply unacceptable by any standards.”

The North voiced yet more belligerence on Friday, turning its venom on Japan, saying: “If Japan makes a slightest move, the spark of war will touch Japan first.” The statement added that “Japan must come to its senses” or else Tokyo would be “consumed in nuclear flames”.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Kim Jong-Un is a pudgy, spoiled little tinpot dictator, presiding over a desperately poor nation and an army which, while large in size, is comically antiquated and under-equipped, and not at all prepared for significant combat.

Like most rational people, Kim and the senior officials around him who pull the strings, do not have a death wish, and are not about to launch a nuclear strike against anyone, with very low chance of success but the certainty of total destruction in retaliation.

It should be obvious to a small child that Kim Jong-Un is sabre-rattling (if I hear the term “bellicose rhetoric” one more time on the news, or read it in print, I think I will go mad) purely to shore up his authority and support at home. Given the fact that none of the poor enslaved citizens of North Korea will ever see the stern-faced responses that our own leaders somehow feel compelled to give every time their babyfaced dictator throws one of his tantrums, we have to ask ourselves why do John Kerry and William Hague (and countless other military and diplomatic officials) feel the need to respond publicly when those responses will be seen only by their domestic audiences?

And incidentally the people at Fox News, who have been covering the latest tensions with great glee as another “Obama foreign policy crisis” would do well to discover some humility and remember that it was their beloved president, George W. Bush, who allowed North Korea to go nuclear in the first place.

That is all.

Bad Journalism Award

You know how it is when you read an article that is just so weak, so clearly living in a hermetically-sealed bubble of similar opinions, so insulated from opposing viewpoints, so grandiose in its self-righteous assuredness and yet so utterly wrong that it makes you just want to issue a point-by-point rebuttal of every stupid thing that the author committed to print (hopefully at this point you are not nodding and thinking “yes, that would be the last article I read here…)?
Well, Charles Hurt, writing in The Washington Times, stepped up to the challenge and magnificently managed to push all of my buttons with his piece entitled “Obama’s South Side Chicago Thuggery” (yes). So here you are, Charles: this is why you are wrong. From the top:

Now that we know just what President Obama thinks of people who succeed in business, it is no wonder that the economy is so much in the crapper. In his desperation to avoid any discussion of his own disastrous handling of the economy, Mr. Obama announced last week what he thinks of the struggling spark plugs of commerce: They are a bunch of felons.

Of course, he did not come right out and directly say that himself, because that would risk drawing renewed questions about whether he is actually an American with the slightest whiff of respect for private industry and ingenuity that defines America.

The economy being “in the crapper”, of course, is all Obama’s fault. Nothing to do with the huge credit crisis and other systemic and structural flaws developed under the previous eight years of Republican oversight.

And what’s this? “…that would risk drawing renewed questions about whether he is actually an American with the slightest whiff of respect for…” Actually an American, what an interesting turn of phrase. Almost as though the author were trying to subconsciously plant the idea that the president is, in fact, actually not an American. But we’ll say no more about that.

So he did what gangsters from the South Side of Chicago have always done. He dispatched one of his bloodthirsty capos to handle his dirty work. Then he strolls up onto the scene all clean and innocent-looking in his fancy, pressed duds and shiny spats and plays the wise guy.

Oh really? Valerie Plame. Scooter Libby. Dick Cheney. George W. Bush floating serenely above the fray. That is all I have to say to that.

As Mr. Obama misquoted Harry S. Truman the other day: “The buck stops with you.” Obviously he was confusing Truman with his real hero, Al Capone.

This political thuggery straight off the streets of Chicago signals desperation in the Obama campaign and a level of deception unrivaled in recent presidential politics.

Yeah, I don’t know what he is talking about either. But will someone please explain to me the American right’s frequent use of of the terms “thug” or “thuggish” in describing left-wing activism? You read or hear it all the time, on any right-wing blog. Why thugs? Is this a remnant from the Jimmy Hoffa days, or something else? Why is a left-wing person who uses strident language and occasional overstatement a “thug”, while a right-wing person is just understandably carried away because of their deep and abiding love for America, and should be given a free pass? Huh?

And most decent people would not suggest that the president’s hero is a murdering gangster. You can say it, Charles, that is totally within your constitutionally guaranteed rights, but I’m going to call you a low-life, slanderous, sanctimonious moron for having said it.

Democrats howled when John Kerry got “swift-boated” during the 2004 election with questions about his deservedness of medals he won during Vietnam — medals that he later threw away in protest of America and the military.

Okay, this one really annoys me. “…threw away in protest of America and the military”? Charles Hurt, could you be any more of a stereotypical US conservative? All about institutions and paternalism and respect for authority, and livid whenever anyone questions any of these. John Kerry loves his country, I’m sure, having served it in so many ways throughout his career, and it is disrespectful in the extreme for you to suggest otherwise. I would venture to say that Kerry threw away his medals in protest at the US foreign policy of the time, as conducted by the US military, and not at the idea of America and the US military in themselves. Many people, patriots also, would defend the right to burn the flag as a protest, but then I’m sure you would consider them traitors and anti-Americans too. Because anything but total, blind, unswerving allegiance to the government policy of the day is treason, of course. Oh, wait – unless there a Democratic administration that you disagree with in power, in which case you exercise your patriotism by making warm noises about armed uprisings and overthrowing the government.

And it’s just so much easier to win an argument when you grossly mischaracterise someone else’s actions and arguments, isn’t it, Charles?

Okay, I’m not going to spend any more time on Charles Hurt. I should not have risen to the bait. But the thought of him sitting there, reading the daily papers and getting outraged about all of the terrible policies that liberals are enacting, and the dirty processes by which they operate, whilst wilfully forgetting everything bad that happened under the previous Republican administration, was too much for me.

So I’m calling you on this one, Mr. Hurt.

Your article sucks, and you are the first winner of my Bad Journalism Award. Not that what you do – based on this example, at least – can really be called journalism as such.

In case you are wondering, your prize was the fact that I called you a low-life, slanderous, sanctimonious moron on my blog.