The deafening blather of our public ‘servants’

Julia Pierson testifies before Congress on Tuesday, before resigning as director of the Secret Service. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Julia Pierson testifies before Congress on Tuesday, before resigning as director of the Secret Service. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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.

Reader Comments 0

107 comments
Trefusis
Trefusis

Honestly, this is too close-cut to comment in short form.  Good piece, though.  Must've been hard to write.  Not to pretend, but I found in newspapering that if you write like hell, all hell breaks loose. And that's more or less what you should want.  No need for the stylist manipulations of a Peggy Noonan, who incidentally worked mainly for the Vice President, not the POTUS.   

Vanbren5
Vanbren5

I stopped reading at Peggy Noonan .She's not a credible. She predicted Romney would win Virginia because she saw a few yard signs in Northern Virgina..LOL

Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

@Vanbren5 Yeah I remember that.


She isn't credible at all. I see her on the Sunday Morning shows from time to time and she comes off as very unitelligent

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

@HeadleyLamar @Vanbren5   But, Obama seems like the President of the Harvard Law Review,  when his teleprompter is on the fritz.  Duh, uh, oh, wa, well, when.

LilBarryBailout
LilBarryBailout

@Vanbren5

Of course you stopped reading (or claim to).

Government is your god and blasphemers are ignored.

WWTJD
WWTJD

@Captain-Obvious,


how about the 1000 plus rehires at Gulfstream (layoffs under Sonny Perdue, rehires under Deal) -- and we gave them tax credits for creating new jobs!


What a country!

MHSmith
MHSmith

If you only knew how many times I said to others and have wished for a ballot option to vote in any and every race: NONE OF THE ABOVE!




This year is no exception, Kyle.



Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

For those keeping score at home:

  • That’s an additional 1.9 million jobs since January;
  • That’s an additional 2.6 million jobs in the past year;
  • That’s an additional 5.5 million jobs since January 2009.
  • That’s an additional 9.1 million jobs in the last four years, exceeding any job growth reported in the Bush administration;

Thank you President Obama....Mount Rushmore awaits !!!! 

Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

@Captain-Obvious @HeadleyLamar Spin of the highest order. 


Rehires....isn't that kind of the point.


The job creation was tilted heavily toward full-time positions, which surged by 671,000. Part-time jobs actually fell by 384,000.


I thought with Obamacare any new jobs were part time ones....Another Obamacare lie goes poof


Mount Rushmore awaits. !!!!!



Captain–Obvious
Captain–Obvious

@ Captain-Obvious Heaven forbid a black guy gets put alongside the great whites, huh?!?!?

Claver
Claver

@MHSmith @HeadleyLamar You missed your window.  His legacy, Obamacare, is already untouchable.  Repealing is a non-starter and you don't have a viable alternative (unless you want to push single payer).  The best you can hope for is a little trimming around the edges.  History is going to be written by those young people who have been running headlong away from the Republican party. They are going to view Obamacare the way today's seniors view Medicare. (I can hear them shouting "Get your government hands off my Obamacare" now). Yes, they will put him on Rushmore, just give it a few years.

consumedconsumer
consumedconsumer

@Captain-Obvious no, i was just curious why the good mt was there so did a little googlin'. sorry you don't like what i found. 


And the Jesus! monument in in Rio. 

consumedconsumer
consumedconsumer

@Captain-Obvious interesting, you provided the ensuing conclusion . . . so i guess your complaint is with you. 

consumedconsumer
consumedconsumer

@Captain-Obvious awwwwww, someone here loves him some open friday. the other days, he's doesn't seem so active.


"or something else" is less a conclusion, than a question (I guess I should have put in a question mark for you, my bad) or an alternative theory for you to consider. 


you posited great achievement. i found something stating tourism. you complained and stated i'd provided a conclusion. 


to all this, i say . . .with great enthusiasm . . .Whatever, get over yourself

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

@HeadleyLamar And we have added something 15 million new Americans since 2008, so these efforts have not been enough to keep up.

Trefusis
Trefusis

@D_Lucy  Mount Rushmore already is what anthropologists call an "artifact".  How would y'all feel about Granite dust and jackhammers up the side of Stone Mountain?  It wouldn't even matter which new personage.  The whole idea is sick.  It always was.

AndyManUSA#45
AndyManUSA#45

It's an attitude that starts at the top. Are you a faithful servant of those who employ you or a grievance filled whack job who despises your fellow citizens?

We know which one obama propagates.

Tiberius-Constitutionus
Tiberius-Constitutionus

Meanwhile, in other news, unemployment rate <6%.  


Thank you, President Obama and Democrats, for saving us from the destruction wrought by 30 years of misguided GOP government.

consumedconsumer
consumedconsumer

@Captain-Obvious 


ah, the 60s . . .when conservatism looked in the mirror and found out it was old.


but to your quip, the internet 90s was America on an up swing. Conservative follies in Afghanistan and Iraq is what led to the decline. 

Stephenson_Billings
Stephenson_Billings

Judge: IRS Obamacare Rule 'Is Arbitrary, Capricious, and Abuse of Discretion'

"

In his decision, U.S. District Judge Ronald White concluded Tuesday that the IRS rule altering the Obamacare law and providing billions in subsidies is "arbitrary, capricious and abuse of discretion":

"The court holds that the IRS rule is arbitrary, capricious, and abuse of discretion or otherwise not in accordance with law, pursuant to 5 U.S.C.706(2)(A), in excess of summary jurisdiction, authority or limitation, or short of statutory right, pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 706(2)(C), or otherwise is an invalidation of the ACA [Affordable Care Act], and is hereby vacated. The court's order of vacatur is stayed, however, pending resolution of any appeal from this order."

http://cnsnews.com/mrctv-blog/craig-bannister/judge-irs-obamacare-rule-arbitrary-capricious-and-abuse-discretion

TheRealJDW
TheRealJDW

Well a couple of things pop to mind here...first, when high school students are writing papers with the thesis 


" 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"


There is a problem.


Second, the Darrell Issa's of the world coupled with the unholy media feeding frenzy (which as we have determined needs not have any basis in fact see Fox News and Ferguson Mo. for example) have led to the activation of the self preservation instinct in anyone in a situation that requires public commenting.


Simply put the public and political over reaction to things of no consequence have created the beast (see Benghazi, IRS etc...). 

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

@TheRealJDW Overreaction?  Four dead Americans in Benghazi, didn't warrant investigations.  IRS targeting one political party to help the other, didn't warrant investigations?


I think this is just more selective disengagement on your part.  With you it depends on whose goose they are trying to cook.  


If you believe these investigations were overreach,  then I guess it was an over reaction to determine who outed Valerie Plame, or why the US attorneys were dismissed by Bush, something that every President has the option of doing.  Those investigations were legit, right? Henry Waxman was more objective and rational than Issa?

Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

@RafeHollister @TheRealJDW Benghazi, didn't warrant investigations.


Sure it did. but after the 5th or 6th one we kind of knew the facts. It didn't take 18 committees or whatever the count is up to now.


 IRS targeting one political party to help the other, didn't warrant investigations?


Sure....but we kind of know what happened there too...The IRS has had their budget slashed by Republicans ( which is counter productive. It encourages the cheats and actually brings in less revenue ) then they were being flooded with requests for tax exempt status..They figured out a way to weed those out quickly. Some scandal.



TheRealJDW
TheRealJDW

@RafeHollister 


"Four dead Americans in Benghazi, didn't warrant investigations.  "


Yep one...so far we are on 15+ which is politicized nonsense. 



RafeHollister
RafeHollister

@TheRealJDW @RafeHollister Well, when we get past the obstruction from the regime, get some cooperation, and interview the ACTUAL on site witnesses, maybe we can get the truth and end the investigations.

Don't Tread
Don't Tread

Things might change for the better if third party candidates were actually allowed on the ballot.  Democrats and Republicans have collaborated to institute the "20% rule" (threshold for third parties) and signature requirements for independent candidates to make sure their parties are the only ones on the ballot.


Hence, we get only the choice of the lesser of two evils, and this country continues to circle the drain.  Coincidence??

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

I have to head out to a couple of meetings this afternoon, so I'm turning off moderation for a while. There will also be an open thread posting later this afternoon (though I should be back online before it publishes).

MarkVV
MarkVV

While one can easily agree with the substance of Kyle’s column, it would be useful not to be too self-righteous, (which, incidentally, is one of the main characteristics of Peggy Noonan), and admit that what is being described is human nature, and most certainly is not limited to “public servants.” Does anybody remember statements of the representatives of the industry, such as auto-industry when dealing with their business practices? Or of the leaders of the institutions of higher-learning, when their scandals are revealed? Yes, we can choose not to watch or attend NFL games, but can we avoid all those businesses and organizations? I am all in favor of criticizing that kind of behavior, but let’s not pretend that it is unique for the government.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@MarkVV "... let’s not pretend that it is unique for the government."

OP: "This is of course not a problem unique to government..."

MarkVV
MarkVV

@Kyle_Wingfield @MarkVV 

Yes, an obligatory disclaimer, ignoring that the whole OP was about government servants, and that you "can’t opt out" of government."

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@MarkVV The point was about government because it is particularly pernicious when government does it, for the reasons explained.

Had you simply said you think it's equally as bad when business did it, I would still think you were wrong but at least that would be a legitimate point. Saying I was "pretend(ing) that it is unique for the government" when I said in almost exactly the same words that it wasn't, makes no sense.

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

@MarkVV @Kyle_Wingfield Government is so immense and has become such an huge or important part of our lives, they can't hide their failure for years like some corporation, so it is a relentless, daily, in your face, despicable behavior.  

InTheMiddle2
InTheMiddle2

@HeadleyLamar @RafeHollister @MarkVV @Kyle_Wingfield  You mean the one they sent me an email on, boy they suck at hiding things don't they.


Security breach, feds?? Something in the back of my mind tells me we had an issue, something about millions of documents dumped, something about a guy running off to Russia, something about -Nobody got fired,


If all else fails, wipe out you hard drive and you phone and claim it was an accident.

DawgDadII
DawgDadII

@MarkVV  The real problem in today's world is our unifying purpose and principles, our common shared values, have eroded and been politicized into shreds to the point where greed, political agendas and other forms of self-interest trump all accountability. The President's inability to tell the truth (Obamacare, etc.), Lois Lerner, Benghazi, the APS cheating scandal, the Ethics Commission problems, hacked credit card accounts, "Climate Change", the reaction to the shooting in Ferguson MO, these are ALL symptoms of the same underlying problem.

MarkVV
MarkVV

@Kyle_Wingfield @MarkVV 


Kyle, please do not follow the example of some others by claiming that I wrote something I did not. I wrote “I am all in favor of criticizing that kind of behavior, but let’s not pretend that it is unique for the government.” I did not write that you pretended it to be unique. I wonder why you write your OP and submit it for comments, if you take such a thin-skin attitude to comments. I pointed out my agreement with the essence of your column, but also that it is a problem of human nature and almost universally observed, while you focused only on the easy target – the government.