Friday, February 6, 2009


Every office has an indispensable employee. In our office, it is a wonderful woman named Val. Val is not in charge, nor does she make the major decisions, however the fact is, I cannot imagine the office functioning without her. She is everything I am not, namely, organized, level-headed and full of common sense and wisdom.

Back in October, a few days before November 4th, I made the mistake of reminding Val to be sure to vote in the upcoming election. She did not take kindly to my suggestion. To say she reacted viscerally would be an understatement. Quite bluntly, Val made it known that under no circumstances was she going to be involved in any way in the political process. Her reasoning was simple but direct. To her mind, all politicians were crooks who were only out for themselves, and anyone who believed otherwise was not only stupid but also naïve. To her mind, being involved in the electoral process made her party to a pernicious process that was responsible for far too much graft and dishonesty.

I tried valiantly to counter her assertions. I reminded her that I had known countless politicians that had made life better for millions of people (including me). Donald Robertson came to mind. Don was Ben Cardin’s majority leader during the governorship of Harry Hughes. I grew up down the street from his home in Chevy Chase and was lucky enough to get to know him both as a father and as a politician. Don was, and is, honest to a fault and during his time serving the people of Maryland he always put the needs of the state first. Much of his career was spent convincing the well-heeled taxpayers of Montgomery County that they had an obligation not only to the area some refer to as “greater Washington,” but to all of the citizens of Maryland, particularly those who lived in the great port city of Baltimore. When I hear the word politician I think of people like Don Robertson.

That said, I have to admit that after hearing the allegations regarding the current governor ( hopefully by the time this column hits the streets he will be the ex-governor) of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, there was a part of me that understood why a sharp person like Val would have so little confidence in our political system. Yes, I know, the charges at this point are only allegations and that everyone, even Blagojevich, is entitled to due process. However, as Sister Helen Patrice of the good sisters of the Holy Cross once taught me, one should not only refrain from doing bad things but also work assiduously to “avoid the near occasion of sin.” The aforementioned phrase is a fancy Catholic way of saying that you need to avoid situations that have the potential to get you into trouble.

Blagojevich was obviously asleep in his CCD class the day the aforementioned metaphysical guidance was proffered. If one considers the audio recordings as evidence, it is clear that the good governor was doing everything in his power to fatten his bank account by selling the vacant Illinois US Senate seat to the highest bidder. Many people (like Val) consider these kinds of illegal practices par for the course in the world of politics. Call me naïve, but reading the transcripts turned my stomach. Here’s why, when people are given a public trust they have an immutable obligation to respect it. The judge who takes a bribe, the cop on the take, the health inspector who overlooks a serious violation in exchange for a favor from the restaurant owner are not only guilty of committing crimes, their actions also do grave damage to the very thing that holds society together, namely trust. In my opinion those who are caught using their power and authority to enrich their own lives rather than those of their constituents should be dealt with more harshly than common criminals and should, perhaps, (depending on the circumstances) be required to pay for their crimes with their lives.

In addition to waxing poetic about the need to avoid trouble Sister Helen Patrice used to also talk extensively about the fable of the “Boy who cried wolf.” She would remind us that the true moral of the story was not that telling lies can get you in trouble (Although that certainly is true). Rather, to her, the real point of the story was that those who are incapable of telling the truth should not only be punished but also ostracized and exiled. Why? For the simple reason that society cannot function when trust is gone.

In the month of November 500, 000 of our fellow citizens lost their jobs. Our nation is about to undergo a difficult and unfathomable economic crucible that only two years ago would have seemed unthinkable. In order to get through this difficult time we will have to entrust unprecedented amounts of tax dollars and resources to a wide range of elected officials on the federal, state and local level. We cannot expect that all of the decisions they make will be wise ones. They will make mistakes. We cannot expect them to be perfect. What we can expect is that those entrusted with ensuring the public good will be honest in their efforts and that they will base their actions on not what is best for them but what is best for the people they serve.

Val is wrong. Not all politicians are crooks. At the same time, however, those who hold public office should understand that they have an obligation to not only avoid going to jail, but to ensure that their actions are beyond reproach. They need to understand that it is not enough to say, “I did nothing illegal.” Rather, elected officials have a duty to ensure that their decisions and actions inspire trust (rather than suspicion and skepticism) in our democratic systems. When trust is gone, nothing else is possible.

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