Please, media and public, give me a break! Let’s abandon a bad standard…no, make that two bad standards…”Bad optics,” “Caesar’s Wife,” “Above suspicion,” “Conflicts of Interest”… and then there’s “buying access.”


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.

What’s Wrong with “We,The People”? Are we abraded raw, hard-callused, hungry? Is this just manipulation?

“We, the People,” are upset and angry.  And we’ve been this way throughout recent years at least since Bush vs. Gore in 2000.  That decision, however much we may doubt its legitimacy as a proper exercise of the judicial function, verified by reputable post-election analyses as accurately indicating how the election would have turned out in any case.  Concerning as that is to some, we’ve moved on and covered much.  Right now we have a smorgasbord to dine on.

Rolling Stone covers, Salon commentaries, jury verdicts, state “nullifications,” ALEC, “Tea-Partiers,” Left-wingers, Right-wingers, Treyvon Martin and George Zimmerman victimizations, “Stand Your Ground,” “Self-Defense,” Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Bradley Manning, NSA, CIA, FBI, any Cheney, Obama, Obamacare, The Mainstream Media, Fox News, The New Media…

Take your pick and don’t leave the table hungry if you want more or bring your own if I’ve left something out, either because I didn’t think of it off the top of my head or just missed it completely on a Sunday morning before checking the news to see if something new is out there to add to the list.

Opinions fly about, some well-reasoned but many if not most just angry assertions about the motives of people holding contrary opinions and many of these expressed in vulgar terms not intended to persuade but to insult.  These are usually read only by those who hold much the same opinions.  Few of these opinions, even the most thoughtfully developed ones, are actually making it across the divide to be scrutinized and evaluated by those who think differently.

This back and forth within each side is described as the positioning of the “bases” of a side’s supporters.  The participants know from the outset that they aren’t persuading anyone new, just maintaining strength through unity.

There are a number of factors easily identified as contributing to all this anger:  the economic near-collapse in 2008, the slow recovery, bailouts, foreclosures, job losses, a growing sense among some of privilege and among others of an unscrupulous and unconcerned elite as well as the election of an inexperienced and not well-known senator to be the nation’s first African-American president in a country that still has race problems and the, to my mind even more insidious problem, an unconscious racism among some of those most committed to the ideal of equality before the law for all Americans.  A sense of frustration at the ending of two wars as no clear cut desired end result was obtained from the first and that is the most likely outcome of the second, even as events in other parts of the world demand that the US play a leadership role, if not pre-emptively as some would have, at least as the last major power.  Alongside it is the concern that the homefront itself is in need of serious attention if the US is to remain the country most of us have seen as offering the best environment for achieving one’s personal goals and living a good and satisfying life.

We, the People, have much to dine upon but we seem to have decided to throw the food at each other rather than eat it, chewing thoroughly.  We are mad at the banquet.

I think there are two possible explanations, neither of which is very useful except as a check on how we are to respond to the future we face how we deal with what appears to be our appetite.

One is that we are just “raw,” skinned by all that has happened.

Anything that touches us anywhere hurts or at least is perceived as a possible hurt.  We react immediately, thoughtlessly and angrily against anything that comes our way and displeases us or has that potential.  We don’t sort out moral, legal, philosophical, scientific bases for our reactions and think through their consequences or what the implications of our feelings might be for other feelings we hold equally but that are not in play on the current issue (This is hard to do when not abraded, the more so if in pain.)  We personalize without thinking.  If the Koch brothers could have done in their lifetimes all the harm to the country that has been attributed to them, they would be the two most effective figures in the last 60-plus years and would not have had a chance to build their fortune.  If the Mainstream Media had so distorted the truth as claimed there would be no-one left to know it.  If Rolling Stones using a widely used picture of one of the Boston bombers so “glamorized terrorism,” why was that not true when other publications used the same picture?  Are we “judging a book by its cover?”  Is there no ethical obligation to read the article before pronouncing on the editors’ decision to use the picture?  No, we are angry and we want to be and we don’t want some damn Sunday morning blogger pronouncing on what our ethics should be either!

The other explanation is that we have become hard callused by recent years and crave to feel something, anything, that restores us to the basically good people we had thought we or at least most of us were.

Lashing out about racism over a jury verdict, indicting “Stand Your Ground” laws passed by legislatures properly elected by we, the people, rubbing Mitch McConnell’s nose in his pronouncement about making Obama a one-term president, pro-gun control people as experts on TV saying that the Constitution says nothing about self-defense as if the Constitution were the sole or even the major basis of most of the laws of the land, questioning jury verdicts on the basis of one juror’s anonymous interview about how she understood what was happening in the jury room within the minds of all six, whether or not we think the jury came to the right conclusion (and often neglecting that a close following of the TV coverage gave a viewer more information than the jury was allowed to have because it was sent out of the room frequently), pronouncing people with whose views we disagree to be “stupid” when all evidence is that they are anything but stupid, they simply have a different purpose they are pursuing from that which we think is right as in “Ted Cruz is stupid.”  These make us feel better, superior, more like we are the north star for what should and shouldn’t be than we have been able to feel through so much that was difficult to understand or even get reliable information about in recent economics, world affairs, 9/11, terrorist attacks, homeland and national security, cyberwar, Wikileaks, “enhanced interrogation methods,” torture, “state secrets doctrine” and more that we had no say about and when we asked we were told to go away, it would be dangerous if “We, the people” knew these things.

Of course, it is possible to suffer from both abrasions and calluses and feel little need to make the distinction.  What does seem true is there there is anger and now nearly every news event contains something to provoke it.

We, the people, might rightly, I think, be angry at ourselves.  We vote less, we leave elections in the hands of people whose positions we don’t know or often even bother to ask.  They act for themselves because they have seen how little We, the people, care what they do if it doesn’t affect us negatively and how generous we will be if we think they are doing something that will positively affect us.

The time has come I hope that We, the people, will begin to hold ourselves accountable for being so angry.  We will investigate for ourselves through the amazing array of resources available to us how our leaders have behaved with respect to the issues we believe to be of highest priority for the ‘general welfare’ before they became our leaders.  However good or bad we may find them in what we learn of their personal lives before presenting themselves for leadership positions, we will refrain from allowing those feelings to affect our judgements about what they have done that has public importance.  When they are in office, however much we like them personally and however enthusiastically we supported their candidacies, we will hold them to account for what they do, not what they say or how likeable they are.  We can and must do it civilly and politely or we will lose our country and our system.  We are only responsible for what we say and do in this regard, not for how uncivil or impolite others are, we are not charged with policing others on this score.

We will learn about the items on the buffet table of issues before us so that we can spot an “expert” who really isn’t one and listen to one who is.  We will take seriously what we learn, even what we learn that we do not like, if the source is truly reputable.  We will hold media of all types accountable for stirring up emotions without adding substance or content and steer them to items of substance above all.  (We will use our remote controls to ensure they get our message and move back and forth to check on their progress.)

We will “read, mark and inwardly digest” the Constitution and what it says and doesn’t say.  Where today’s practice seems at odds with what it says we will inquire deeper into the history of its interpretation to discover how we got from its words to today’s practices.  We will accept that there is more to the law than the Constitution, state legislative action or executive action provide.  We have a deep common law background for most laws that we encounter and few of us have ever actually had to confront a constitutional question.  When something about the law “looks funny” to us we will probe history before pronouncing, cf a commentator saying on cable news that the Constitution says nothing about “self-defense” as if that right had no pre-constitutional existence in law or that the Constitution was the sole source of our laws.  The law is not always obvious but it is almost always a result of history and what we say about it should reflect that awareness.

We will stop using the word “politics” pejoratively.  Of course what we are talking about is politics and politicians, political operatives, political parties, etc.  That is what this is about for both those we define as the “good guys” and the “bad guys.”  Its respectable but that is beside the point:  300-plus million people cannot function in a democratic system without politics.  Tyrannies, dictatorships, autocracies can often be without politics; democracies require politics.

We will stop talking about “special interests” when we mean the interests other groups have that we don’t share.  It would be nearly impossible to find someone whose interests are not represented by some organized group that employs lobbyists and even more difficult to find a representative or senator who did not need to hear what those lobbyists have to say about important issues before casting an informed vote.

We, the people, will recognize that if it is not as we think it should be, we may have to seek out people to run for office, vet them thoroughly, work diligently for those we select according to their needs and our gifts, from providing strategy to planting yard signs and ringing door-bells, sometimes only to have the latter slammed in our faces.

The duty of citizens is not outrage and anger, it is participation and engagement.  It is tougher work than most of us have done.  Most of our political leadership has had at best only our vote but more is required.  The candidate may be able to bring about “hope” but he or she cannot bring about “change” so long as we are content to think we are participating by hurling epithets at people with whom we disagree.  The election of 2014 is important in and of itself but also as the initiation of the setting for the larger election of 2016.  It is a good time to begin a more active participation than most of us have undertaken previously.  Our values may not prevail – clearly some won’t – but the experience of participation and engagement will find its use almost immediately.

Anger will subside for lack of time for it.  We are not citizens for the purpose of expressing our anger at other citizens but for the purpose of ensuring that the important items on the smorgasbord of issues we are angry about is thoroughly consumed by the processes of our democracy and well-digested.

The consequences of our not “upping” our level of actual political engagement to secure our values is that the people who are now past that anger point and into effective action, whether “Tea-Partiers” or “left-wing of the left wingers,” will continue to decide who makes and enforces our school board policies, city ordinances, county ordinances, state laws, and federal laws employing our “food throwing” as a cheap megaphone to secure their purposes among others who won’t engage in more than voting either.  Beyond the anger stage, the people we are railing about have left We, the people, way behind.  We must catch up with them and put ourselves to the real test of citizenship, acting the part.

If, “We, the People” are the inheritors of the American Revolution, we must see it passing us by and take our leave from anger to get in front of that revolution once more.  And with that, enjoy your lunch.  I’m sure there is more to eat coming…