In the Walt Disney film, “Bambi,” Thumper the rabbit had a simple philosophy: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” On the other hand, Washington socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth, famously had a pillow emblazoned, “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” In today’s Twitter-sphere, it appears that Thumper’s advice is ignored, and Mrs. Longworth’s approach is embraced, especially by President Trump. Is this the behavior of leaders and elected officials? Isn’t there a higher standard?
Yes, there is. Or, at least, there should be. Officials at all levels of government may be elected because of their popularity, but most of the work after the election centers on policy, not popularity. Constituents expect their elected leaders to be workhorses on their behalf, not show ponies trotted out for special occasions. The everyday work of governance isn’t superficial; it goes deeper into concepts, issues, judgment, and solutions. Governance also requires the highest standard of ethics. Behavior matters. What an elected official says, or tweets, matters, especially when that elected official is the president of the United States.
Campaigns and elections make candidates fair game for all sorts of comments and accusations. That seems to be the nature of the process, and it’s not new. What is new is the medium. The broadsheets and stump speeches of the 1800s have been replaced by electronic media that can bombard and castigate around the globe in seconds, day and night, with little or no care about separating truth from fiction. Without a filter or impulse control, an elected official, like the president, can destroy decades of progress in mere seconds.
A leader needs to rise above attacks on policies or personalities. Somebody has to be the grown-up, and resist the immediate urge to strike out, or strike back, at anything written, spoken, or tweeted. Develop a thick skin, let things roll off your back, be slow to boil (but quick to act in the public interest when necessary), and measured in response to almost everything. It’s not about you, but about the public trust that is in your care, and the high standards of ethics and ethical behavior that, if you don’t possess innately, are outlined carefully in local, state, and federal law. Candidly, though, if you don’t have an inborn ethical compass, you have no business running for office.
So what do we do? What do we do when the president of the United States appears to have such a gap in common decency, compassion, and understanding of the underpinnings of our history or democratic processes?
We fight. Like the millions of women (and men) who marched on the day after the Inauguration, we fight! We don’t allow normalization of such behavior. We teach our children, and grownups, too, that denigrating people, whether individuals or entire faith and ethnic populations, never is acceptable. Speak out. Speak out in social settings, civic meetings, at the dinner table, and in the office. Our basic human values need to be reiterated and reinforced, or we lose them.
My paternal grandfather, a longshoreman, lived by the Golden Rule — Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s a little loftier than Thumper’s philosophy, but both provide a more rational approach than what we hear from the occupant in the White House these days.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]