Topic: Government & Politics
Sarah Palin’s story is in large
part an ethics story. She rose to prominence by knocking off some of Alaska’s
genuinely corrupt politicians in the famously corrupt state, and pressed
for thorough ethics reforms as a foundation of her administration as governor.
But in politics, “ethics” is as much a weapon as a standard of conduct,
and as the beneficiary of its tactical incarnation, Palin had to know
that her enemies would exploit every opportunity to use it on her. Since
being nominated as John McCain’s running mate and attracting the ire of
the Angry Left, who found the concept of a conservative female candidate
deeply offensive, the Alaska governor had been hit with a succession of
ethics charges, many of them pure partisan harassment, but most of them
avoidable by a any politician whose ethics alarms were calibrated properly.
Palin’s were not. Are not.
Was she, as liberal bloggers like
Josh Marshall would have us believe (and apparently do believe), a deeply
unethical governor? She was careless, especially for a public figure who
knew she had a large target on her back. Governors with families have
to be scrupulous about travel and security expenses involving them; the
rules may be called ethics rules but are in fact regulations and vary
greatly from state to state. Palin had to pay back some improper travel
expenditures for her children: that’s not good, but it’s not proof of
corruption or untrustworthiness. The complaint about her use of the alleged
$150,000 wardrobe during the presidential campaign was garbage, the worst
kind of double-standard, partisan nit-picking. A campaign, like it or
not, is a marketing effort, and Palin was the first national candidate
with legitimate cover-girl credentials. It was absolutely reasonable for
the campaign to make her as attractive on the stump as possible, and the
money spent on this pales by current celebrity standards. Meanwhile, the
same people who attacked Palin’s wardrobe seem at peace with Michelle
Obama’s full-time hair dresser. In truth, there is nothing unethical about
Palin’s one clear ethical violation
was in the so-called “Troopergate” scandal, a clear abuse of power, and
a textbook conflict of interest. When Palin became governor, she was rankled
by the fact that a state trooper, her sister’s ex-husband, remained on
the state payroll despite conduct that by any measure was despicable....despicable
enough, in fact, (he used a taser on a child, among other things) that
you or I might have no hesitation in agreeing with Palin that no state
should have employ such a creep. The problem was that her knowledge of
the trooper was personal, and anything she did to remove him in her official
capacity would be, by definition, an abuse of power. She had a conflict
of interest because of the trooper’s adversarial relationship to Palin’s
family member, her sister, and as infuriating as it was, she simply could
not lift a finger to affect his employment...no matter how right she might
be, no matter how much of a louse he was, no matter how much better off
the state would be with this guy pumping gas instead of working for Alaska.
For Palin to do otherwise would raise, at very least, an appearance of
impropriety, the basic government official ethics no-no.
But spunky Sarah just couldn’t
help herself. She kept agitating with her brother-in-law’s supervisor
to have him fired, even when the supervisor quite correctly told her she
had to back off. Then she fired him. This inept move also raised
the dual specters of abuse of power and the appearance of impropriety.
I can have sympathy for Palin’s
plight. Imagine having a man working for you who you know, from personal
experience, as a Grade A rotter, and not being able to do anything about
it. Palin could rationalize squeezing the ex-brother-in-law out of his
job on many grounds: public safety, public good, family loyalty, but the
unalterable fact was that she was forever blocked from doing anything
because of her conflict of interest. She was a state governor; these are
the rules and principles she needed to understand and live by. There was
no virtue in ignoring them because it felt good at the time.
Few national figures have been treated as unfairly and meanly by partisan critics and the media as Palin. The degree of hostility toward her shown by the supposedly neutral news media during the 2008, while her Democratic counterpart, the gaffe-prone, comically inept Senator Joe Biden, received the equivalent of a free pass, will stand as one of American journalism’s low points. There are too many examples to list, but they are extreme. A few months ago, the ABC NEWS website had a feature called , “Did they Really Say That?” in which especially dumb or inarticulate quotes from politicians (all the politicians singled out were Republicans, incidentally). Palin was the only figure represented by a fictional stupid quote made up as a joke by a Palin impressionist---Saturday Night Live’s Tina Fey. Image if that same standard had been applied to Bill Clinton or Al Gore.
Nevertheless, just because you
are being singled out, targeted and abused doesn’t mean that you don’t
deserve some of the criticism you get. Palin, as an ethics crusader, should
have been especially careful; instead, she was especially careless. As
a trailblazer, she had to know she would be under special scrutiny, and
that her conduct had to be more pristine than the typical politician.
All right, that’s too low a standard; let’s try again: her conduct had
to be as beyond reproach as a politician’s conduct can be. Palin thought
that good intentions were enough. They almost never are. She blundered
into avoidable ethical problems that misallocated her time, spent political
capital and wasted funds, both public and her own.
Finally, she proved that her ethical
blind spot is chronic. She acted on gut instinct rather than on measured
consideration of duties, obligations and consequences. Palin chose to
play political martyr and abandon her duties rather than fulfill her obligations
to the voters of Alaska. No amount of double-talk, and that is what her
bizarre resignation speech amounted to, can change the verdict on this
final, and signature, ethics breach as Governor of Alaska. During her
campaign for the national ticket, Palin, to a nauseating extent, extolled
her credentials as a “maverick.” Unfortunately, mavericks stand apart
from the herd, and they can’t be leaders. A leader has to think of the
herd first, and that means taking the insults, dealing with the bogus
ethics complaints, enduring the thug ex-brother-in-law getting a state
paycheck, and finishing out the term even when book deals and speaking
tours seem a lot more enticing and lucrative than following through on
Ultimately, Palin failed the ethics test. Not in the ways her opponents had claimed, but in a crucial way, nonetheless. Her failing was not the abuse of power, but the inability to accept the obligations of power. One of them is that “going by one’s gut” just isn’t good enough.