Topic: Professions & Institutions

Ethics Pollution Personified

Professor Susan Estrich, who ran what was once considered the most inept presidential campaign of all time for Michael Dukakis (until the campaigns of Dole and Gore redefined the standard), has just helped define what the Ethics Scoreboard means when it calls someone an “ethics polluter.” Furious at the Republicans for what she regards as dirty tactics in their attacks on John Kerry, she is using her syndicated column to teach Democrats to be meaner and nastier. “You have to fight fire with fire, mud with mud, dirt with dirt.” she wrote. “Not fair? Who said anything about fair? Remember President Dukakis?” Yes, Estrich believes that it was dirty tactics that defeated the 1988 Democratic nominee who was vanquished at the polls by Bush the Elder.

It is important to mention that Professor Estrich teaches law at Berkeley, just in case you’ve ever wondered where some attorneys learn their ethics. Out of the classroom, she now recommends that the Democrats question the fitness of Bush and Cheney because they have both abused alcohol in the past, and in her non-expert assessment, may be alcoholics:

“Could Dick Cheney get a license to drive a school bus with his record of drunken driving? (I can see the ad now.) A job at a nuclear power plant? Is any alcoholic ever really cured? So why put him in the most stressful job in the world, with a war going south, a thousand Americans already dead and control of weapons capable of destroying the world at his fingertips?”

Nice, don’t you think? Let’s stigmatize the courageous (and large…an estimated 10% of the population) group of Americans who are recovering alcoholics, who battle daily with a pernicious and incurable disease, and yet perform challenging jobs in all professions and levels of society. (By the way, attorney Estrich should know that her fellow attorneys have the highest rate of alcoholism among professionals.). True, it’s unethical for a trained physician to diagnose an illness in an individual without examining him, never mind a law professor, but “who said anything about fair?”

Oh, but Professor Estrich has more “justifiable” tactics in mind. For example, she suggests the formation of…

“… George Bush’s Former Female Friends for Truth. A forthcoming book by Kitty Kelly raises questions about whether the president has practiced what he preaches on the issue of abortion. As Larry Flynt discovered, a million dollars loosens lips. Are there others to be loosened?”

As a law professor, Estrich undoubtedly teaches her students that testimony obtained in exchange for cash has no evidentiary value, and that a gossip columnist and a pornographer would not meet any objective standard of reliability as witnesses, but never mind. The Republicans asked for this, don’t you see? They deserve it.

And thus do our ethical standards collapse. Without debating whether the GOP’s tactics have actually been as dastardly as Estrich would have us believe, rudimentary ethical principles tell us that one party’s misconduct does not justify treatment in kind. Estrich’s suggestions are dictated by hatred, anger, vengeance, and most of all, a lack of imagination.

Dirty tactics can be countered effectively by a timely display of honesty and forthrightness, and should be. As Bill Clinton has acknowledged, it would have been far better for him, when the Monica Lewinsky accusations first surfaced, to emulate successful 1884 presidential candidate Grover Cleveland, who countered the charge that he had fathered an illegitimate child by simply admitting that he had.

If a charge is untrue, then the proper course for a candidate is to explain why, ideally without denigrating the accuser. As unfair as the late hit on Kerry’s war heroism by the Swift Boat veterans was, Kerry’s response, to call them liars and pawns, was just as unfair. If they believe what they are saying, then they are not lying even if it isn’t true. Being wrong is not the same as being dishonest. And it certainly does not change the rules of decency.

A law professor, teacher, member of the bar and ubiquitous talking head like Susan Estrich has an obligation to not use her status to promote unethical conduct. Yet she is actively advocating conduct which she agrees is unfair, encouraging her party to engage in unethical conduct. Already it appears that one of Estrich’s suggestions has been adopted: she argued for the formation of a group called “Texas National Guardsmen for Truth” to raise, yet again, the charges about Bush’s missed time in the National Guard. A similarly named group surfaced with a TV ad just five days after Estrich put her plea into print. Can a “527 group” claiming that recovering alcoholics should be banned from positions of responsibility be far behind?

Professor Estrich won’t believe this, but unethical tactics aren’t nearly as effective as she thinks they are. She is still angry about the infamous Willy Horton TV ads in 1988, which featured the consequences of a Dukakis policy that furloughed violent prisoners. One of them, Willy Horton, went on a rape and murder spree, and many felt that Republican had used the image of Horton, who was black, to court racist voters. But the substance of the ad was accurate: it was a dangerous and ill-advised policy, Dukakis endorsed it, and people died as a result. The questions it raised about the Massachusetts Governor’s judgement were legitimate, and unless someone can articulate why there should be a “Use only white murderers in political ads” rule, this is hardly in the same class as Estrich’s proposed Larry Flynt plan.

And it didn’t cost Dukakis the election. Dukakis’s frosty personality (you may recall that he discussed the hypothetical rape and murder of his wife in a televised debate as if he were reading a weather report) cost him the election. His campaign’s mis-steps (remember Snoopy’s tank ride?) cost him the election. Estrich cost him the election.

It is unfortunate that she now feels that it is necessary to further pollute the nation’s ethical instincts to absolve herself of the blame she so richly deserves. Republicans, Democrats and all Americans who want to elevate the electoral process rather than see it sink deeper into the muck need to do the one thing that really might have made Michael Dukakis President of the United States, and it isn’t using dirty tactics.

It’s ignoring Susan Estrich.

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