What we don’t know:
1. Whether there was any “pay to play” issue. Did Hillary Clinton act officially to change or keep any policy or practice under her purview because of a gift to the Clinton Foundation?
2. Assuming something changed (or didn’t change but otherwise would have), did it result from the gift or prospect of a gift.
3. Is anything that occurred, within the range of current political debate, a change that is in or contrary to the public interest.
The rest is confetti. The rest is about how people “feel” about Hillary Clinton.* Nothing about the standards above provides information about whether those feelings ought to change because of any action or inaction on her part.
“Bad optics” of the issue don’t matter as a sign of how a candidate might behave in office. In the contested judgements about what is in “the public interest” there is nothing “definitive” of the truth. There simply are no “final truths” about any public policy, only clues about future behavior in office.
A confession: Sometimes when looking at a picture of a dead rat, I just can’t shift perspectives to see the red rose in the middle, even when I’ve been told it is there.
“Optics” summarizes the problem; optics are only optics. Optical illusions fascinate us all but they are illusions.
If “Caesar’s Wife” didn’t do anything outside the standards for a Roman “happy marriage,” he shouldn’t have divorced her. (Note that the historical authority from this well-known phrase has a misogynistic character. Nobody asks if Caesar should be “above suspicion.”)
“Above suspicion” isn’t even possible if an official does nothing. Inaction is action in behalf of the status quo. There are always voices opposed to the status quo and suspicious of those who, by inaction or action, preserve it.
“Conflict of interests” is no standard either. Many relationships appearing to be conflicts are actually congruencies of interests. Not all agreements between people holding different interests in a topic are in conflict.
There is, despite protests from outside parties, no necessary conflict between appointing public representatives to a regulatory board and representatives of the interests regulated. Indeed, if public representatives are not thoroughly versed in the details, large and small, of what they are regulating, representatives of that interest are essential to understanding the regulatory impact.
An example: I really don’t want my credit card to be “cloned” when I use it in an ATM when I’m getting cash or on one of those devices on a merchant’s counter to make it easy to charge my purchases. If it is, I’ll likely “scream bloody murder” while saying “somebody do something about this!”
I’ll add my voice to others wanting to see these devices made more secure and those who use them required to take security steps. A board set up to determine what to do might rightly ask me to serve. Given what I don’t know about technology and the ins-and-outs of banking electronically, it might rightly include a vendor of security products and a technology expert at a bank. The one might be seeking business (probably is) and the bank might be seeking to limit costs and liabilities (probably is). Without them, there is not likely to be any sensible solution reached.
Ideally, each side of the subject will learn from the other and together they will find ways to accommodate each other in a constructive result. If the ideal is not met and the two sides find themselves at loggerheads there may be no result. Sometime in the future, some group will find a workable solution if the problem persists.
An example of potential vs. perceived “conflict of interest” may be in order: If a publicly supported charity has a building project and buys the supplies from a board member exclusively and without bidding, a first reaction may be that there is a conflict between the interests of the board member and the good of the organization.
Yet it is often the case that the board member has offered to provide the supplies to the charity at his cost, a gift of the profit that would be made by the lowest bidder if bids were taken. That is a “congruency of interests,” although you won’t hear the term often (if ever, before reading this). If a lawyer, accountant or other professional offers his or her free services to a charity, that is a gift and his retention represents no conflict. Charitable organizations often seek out “congruencies of interests.” They’re helpful.
“Networking,” something every career self-help book recommends as basic to success in any common endeavor and every politician knows is vital to his or her success, is the aggressive seeking of potential “conflicts of interest.” Reaching out to those whose interests in a topic are congruent with one’s own may involve the discovery of other interests in conflict; people weigh their interests and perspectives as they decide whether to support or oppose any given request. The old book How Yellow is Your Parachute points out that most jobs come through personal connections, not want-ads.
Just think: How desirable is the “no-brainer?” It is the chance to do a favor that costs one nothing but ingratiates the person requesting it. Faced with a request, most of us are inclined to say “yes” if we can.
“Buying access,” the second standard to abandon: What bothers us is the sense of “privileged access.”
It is a commonplace that “access” to officials and organizations can be “bought,” at least one way or another. The “currency” used to buy access is often the real “secret.” There are many currencies in use; sometimes currencies are combined to fortify their appeal.
1. Cash: Straightforward gift of cash to an official, usually considered to be a matter of “corruption” in the law, does happen. Cash to a re-election campaign fund is regulated “lightly,” to say the least, as is use of those funds. Cash used to set up a fund to advertise for or against a candidate is another use of cash for access.
2. Opportunities: Investment opportunities, loans, stock tips (to be legal, these could not be “insider” tips but may come from very well-informed sources).
3. Influence: “I’ll get X to do Y for you by putting in a good word.” If X wouldn’t do what you want otherwise, and what you want is really important to you, this will likely buy the promisor and X future access.
4. Friendship or at least familiarity: An official has known someone favorably, or at least not unfavorably, for some time and knows of a connection to his or her cause that could be helpful. A simple request for help is all that’s required. If the request is granted, a sense of obligation to help the friend in the future, even if it is unspoken, is created. Access was and remains a “given” of the relationship. Note too that even the best funded of “cash” influence groups recruit former members of congress to lobby congress; they play upon friendships already established and interests already known to add value to “cash.”
5. Common interest: An official knows that another person shares his or her interest in a subject. A request for help is made. It is granted or not as the situation dictates. Access in the future is likely to be easier.
None of these are different from transactions all of us make from time to time.
1. We pay for things we want that are legal for us to want. If we are caught paying for things that are illegal we will be punished, formally or informally.
2. We find opportunities opened up for us by relationships we have. Our trusted brother-in-law (not the other one) is close to a car dealer who will give us a good deal.
3. A teacher offers to write us a recommendation to graduate school at a place where his old college roommate is dean. A fellow student on the student council offers to put your name in nomination for an award.
4. A friend or the guy whose locker is next to yours at the gym knows the manager of the gym and will put in a word for your son to be a life-guard this summer.
All of these create new paths of access.
From the moment they happen we know someone better and know whether or not we can go back to them; we also know we will take a call from them and, if we can, grant them a favor.
The real complaint with “access” to officials is our sense that “we, the people,” don’t have it because others have “bought” it.
We are strangers to those who presume to serve us. That’s often true; there are more people seeking access than can get it. Public officials can’t meet with everyone who would like to meet with them. Just try to meet with your congressperson if they don’t know you. Or, consider the salesman who must make “cold calls.” An intermediary or a gift would make the call “warmer” even if it were ultimately unsuccessful.
You may, by this time, think that my message is “move along here, nothing to see here.” I’m only saying one of those things: “move along” and look for more revealing standards than the ones mentioned here.
You cannot rely on those at the front of the crowd yelling “fire,” the media. You cannot rely on politicians to “give it to you straight” even when they say they are. You cannot expect that people will not choose the familiar over the unfamiliar, the old friend over the stranger approaching on the street.
“It’s on us!” You (we) must really look – I would say that as a citizen we are obliged to look – to see if there is, in fact, a fire, not just smoke. “Bad optics,” “Caesar’s Wife,” “Above suspicion,” “Conflicts of Interest”… and “buying access,” are almost always smoke. You may get burned or miss out on something good that could have happened if you had not run from the fire if you use these standards.
What you won’t get is the truth of the matter.
*BTW: I don’t expect to change any minds about Hillary Clinton here. Vote as you will. I do hope I challenge people to look more carefully at the standards we use to evaluate people for high office as I think many of them are deceptive.