When I was a senior in high school, my English teacher assigned my class to write a short story for entry in some national contest for high school students. It was a typical kind of assignment for a high schooler, and I wrote what was probably a typical high schooler’s entry: a story that was not going to win any contests. The premise of my story was that the president, the entire federal government and everyone who worked in it or wrote about it, were, wittingly or not, participating in a giant charade. No one was doing anything of actual consequence. The president was a paid actor (by whom, I didn’t explain, which may help account for my entry’s lack of success) and the major TV networks co-conspirators in this elaborate scheme that someone might have perpetrated — for what reason, I still couldn’t tell you. (Did I mention this story won no awards?)
I thought of that otherwise forgettable short story this morning when I read Peggy Noonan’s latest column in the Wall Street Journal, “The New Bureaucratic Brazenness.” She recounts the obvious, but unapologetic, way in which the (now former) head of the Secret Service and health officials discussing the presence of Ebola in the United States withheld, twisted and tortured the truth during public statements this week, and then attributes their smugness to our public “servants” writ large:
“We are locked in some loop where the public figure knows what he must pronounce to achieve his agenda, and the public knows what he must pronounce to achieve his agenda, and we all accept what is being said while at the same time everyone sees right through it. The public figure literally says, ‘Prepare my talking points,’ and the public says, ‘He’s just reading talking points.’ It leaves everyone feeling compromised. Public officials gripe they can’t break through the cynicism. They cause the cynicism.
“The only people who seem to tell the truth now are the people inside the agencies who become whistleblowers. They call a news organization, get on the phone with a congressman’s staff. That’s basically how the Veterans Affairs and Secret Service scandals broke: Desperate people who couldn’t take the corruption dropped a dime. What does it say about a great nation when its most reliable truth tellers are desperate people?
“Sometimes it looks as if everyone in public life is in showbiz, only showbiz with impermeable employee protections. Lois Lerner of IRS fame planted the question, told the lie, took the Fifth, lost the emails and stonewalled. Her punishment for all this was a $100,000-a-year pension for the rest of her life. Imagine how frightened she was. I wonder what the Secret Service head’s pension will be?”
The truly remarkable, and disheartening, thing about all this is it doesn’t happen only when some bureaucrat is talking about important things for which they might (wrongly, IMO) think they need to control the flow of information, such as the safety of the president or a potential danger to public health. No, it doesn’t just happen in those situations. It happens all the time. It happens with routine inquiries to public offices at the local, state, federal and international levels; I’ve reported on all four. There are people in such offices who are helpful, no doubt, who understand it is their duty to help the public understand what their elected and appointed officials are doing on their behalf. But there are also many people in many such offices who act as if it is completely their prerogative whether to fulfill such a duty, who seem trained either to dispense as little truth as possible without telling a direct lie, or just not to give a damn at all.
This is of course not a problem unique to government: Simply recall the disingenuousness of various NFL officials responding to the Ray Rice case over the past month, the way they calibrated their words to match the amount of information they thought the media and hence the public had — or might ever have. The difference, though, is that I can choose not to watch or attend any NFL games, or to be a customer of any other business that behaves likewise. But I can’t opt out of my government.
And the real problem with government here is that we — and here I mean the public, and specifically the electorate — let them get away with it.
We say we want someone to tell us the truth, not dodge the tough issues … and then we often give a majority of the votes to people who do just that and/or employ people who do just that. What I think many people mean when they say they want someone to tell it like it is, is they want someone to tell it like it is to people who think differently than they do.
Now, you could argue that, standing in the voting booth, you most often have a choice between two or more people who are all guilty of the behavior Noonan describes. And I can’t really dispute that. Sometimes I wonder if things might change for the better if we added one candidate to every single race on the ballot: “None of the Above.”
Maybe then the people who work for us would start to treat their jobs like something other than a season of “Survivor” in which no one ever gets voted off the island.