Topic: Government & Politics

Palin’s Ethics

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 either.

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 campaign promises.

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.

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