Saturday, June 27, 2009

Of Public Servants and Broken Vows

You can tell there are a lot of "big news" stories converging when one is abruptly pushed from the top of the broadcasts, only to be succeeded by another, and still another.

While the passing of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson are both sad and significant for popular cutlure and for their respective loved ones, they do not inherently have significant future implications for millions Americans.

The self-made mess of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford does.

Apart from the tragic and momentous damage done to his own family, he is accountable as his state's chief executive to be on duty not only for legislative matters, but also for emergencies-such as calling out the National Guard, etc.

His is but one story in a long line of public servants who seem more focused, at least at certain times, on serving their own interests than the public interest. I draw a distinction between politicians and statesmen. There are, it seems to me, very few of the latter to be found anymore.

But even more than the new news of another politician's moral failings, I am tired of the now cliche refrain: "What others do in their private lives is their own business;" "it has nothing to do with his [and it almost always seems to be 'his' rather than 'her'] ability to do the job;" "don't judge others," and on and on, ad nauseum.

This is a tool for deflecting the burden of accountability--we don't want to be seen holding others accountable, because we don't want to be accountable ourselves. But then our own interests are infringed upon, and then Somebody In Charge better be called on the carpet...

I could note that to those who are vested with power and authority, a higher standard of conduct and accountability goes with the territory. Afterall, we don't willfully elect to office tax cheats, pimps, felons, pedophiles, and those guilty of other crimes. At least not on the merit of those very proclivities. Hmmm, the deduction would seem to be that private morals DO matter, however uncomfortable the implications of that concept may be.

And, it's worth noting that most public servants seem to get themselves into trouble AFTER the authority, influence, and resources that go with elected office are at their fingertips. History, both ancient and contemporary, is rife with examples of many who allow themselves to be corrupted and entitled by the very positsions that they should occupy with a sense of heavy responsibility and honor. Not many discharge such duties nobly. And those who do very seldom make the news.

My "bone to pick", however, is the mindset that fidelity to vows both in personal and public life is of little consequence.

It is not.

The fact that many fail does not diminish the essential importance of being faithful to the roles and duties we assume. No one, to my knowledge, is forced to fill a public office. And apart from some religious or ethnic cultural aberrations, I am not aware that anyone is forced to take marital vows. At least, this is not normative. These are social and personal roles that are pursued, often ardently.

So, whys does fidelity matter? Afterall, we heard during a previous presidential campaign that "It's not the economy, stupid!" And former French President Francois Mitterand's funeral was notable, in part, for the matter-of-fact appearance of both his widow and his mistress at his casket.

But President Clinton's administration was not enhanced by his adultery and lying. I seriously doubt that any viewers envied Madame Mitterand as she publicly shared her grief with the Other Woman, whose very presence proved that her husband didn't value her enough to remain faithful. Did these men discharge their duties effectively? By some measures they did, but in a quieter, deeper way, the example of their lives weakened the fabric of their societies. They illustrated that shirking the most intimate of human bonds was of little consquence. In so doing, they compounded the cynicism with which so many increasingly view the basic building blocks of human society. And breaching trust in one sphere of life makes it easier to breach it in another sphere.

I think fidelity matters--in matters public and private--because morality is real, and functioning societies depend upon it. One need not look far to see the inevitable chaos that results when any of us fail to uphold what we have promised--what others trust us--to do. If a policeman takes an oath to serve and protect, I take it at face value.; I trust that the oath will be kept. I do not set about hiring a private security guard "in case" the police decide to lay off on a whim.

In the private sphere, copious sociological research shows that the next generation does best in intact families. The fact that such families are becoming rarer does not change their value. Even families that do not conform to this social template generally do their best to provide the same nurture, security, and love. This is axiomatic.

But aside from that, discounting Gov. Sanford's personal behavior sends a message that breaking trust, to his family and to his constituents, is really not that big of a deal: we all drop the ball now and then. We all do. That's why repentance, forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation are so valuable and so necessary. But, when we "drop the ball", we also lose "yardage." There are consequences that often spill over to others; sowing and reaping.

The fact that the governor is now, according to published reports, drawing parallesl between his own predicament and the Biblical story of King David would seem to defy comment. Among the consequences David reaped was the death of his infant son. He's known as "a man after God's own heart," but I'm pretty sure the utter contrition he articulated in Psalm 51 had a lot to do with that. There's no citing of other "precedent" there, no presuming on good graces.

Most adults realize that the most valuable elements of life involve relationship. By definition, others are affected by what we do: positively affected when we keep the trust; negatively affected when we break it. Like it or not, we all set examles.

Our behavior reflects our personal values, and people believe behavior.


  1. Kathy, this is a fine article!! Should be on the op-ed page of every newspaper, in large print!! I am so proud of you and both your thinking and your ability to express it so well.