Rep. Lee Terry’s “Dang Straight” and Mea Culpa

Rep. Lee Terry’s “Dang Straight” and Mea Culpa

The federal government is open for business again. Hurrah!

But only until early next year.

The federal government can borrow again. Hurrah!

But only until early February.

In fairness to all parties (I think), this mess we are in is, in part, the mess we, the people, have chosen to be in.As a nation, we have opted for divided government. While the depth of that division reflects the geographic distribution of differences in political philosophy, the power of redistricting and a variety of other factors, the fact remains that we, as a nation, are as divided as our national government’s elected bodies.

To some extent, the division is simply about partisan politics. But I believe it’s also about something much deeper than politics, something much more personal.

I’ll call it hypocrisy.

A very strong word. I don’t use it lightly.

I’m going to single out an individual, not because he is the worst offender, but because he recognized the hypocrisy of his position and addressed it. In so doing (and in doing it so thoroughly), he earned my respect. He also became a model for what many of us, in and out of public office, may need to do.

Rep. Lee Terry (R-Nebraska), when asked after the federal government shut down if he would continue to take his congressional salary, said, “Dang straight. . . . I’ve got a nice house and a kid in college, and I’ll tell you we cannot handle it.” Apparently, it hadn’t yet occurred to Rep. Terry that the hundreds of thousands of federal workers he’d helped furlough might also be worried about losing their nice homes and paying for their kids’ college. Those losses were, one might say, merely collateral damage in the war Rep. Terry and others were waging against Obamacare.

As observers know, this comment, along with other news about what members of Congress were and weren’t doing with their pay during the shutdown, became a stormy media interlude among the many generated by Washington’s budgetary danse macabre. It also appears to have prompted some soul-searching by Rep. Terry.

By Sunday of the weekend immediately after his “Dang straight” comment, Rep. Terry said this:

The other day I made a statement that I would put my needs above others in crisis. I’m ashamed of my comments. It was not leadership. It is not how I was raised. It is not the nature of my character. It is not what I want to teach my sons. I apologize for my hurtful remarks when so many others are feeling the pain of Washington’s dysfunction.”

Rep. Terry’s “dang straight” remarks were simply a manifestation of a very human tendency to attend to our own needs and ignore the plight of others. Such a tendency, in this instance, must be called hypocritical. Rep. Terry was willing to deny federal employees their income (earned by work . . . and some, like members of the congressional staff and the Capitol police, continued to work while not receiving pay), but insisted that he get his own. Arguably, he was demanding that he be paid for having caused the problem that denied others their pay.

But when Rep. Terry was called on his hypocrisy, it appears he experienced an epiphany. That epiphany produced his eloquent mea culpa . . . and, perhaps, a wiser perspective on the responsibilities of a leader.

One could view his mea culpa as purely political, as a necessary tactical retreat from an untenable rhetorical position. One could believe that Rep. Terry did not feel the sentiments he expressed.

Or one could take him at his eloquent word.

I believe that Rep. Terry is more of a representative than many of us might wish to acknowledge. His hypocrisy is not unique to certain Republicans in Washington, or even, in more bipartisan fashion, to certain Democrats and Republicans.

In his hypocritical insistence that he was entitled to take care of himself while denying others what was rightfully theirs, Rep. Terry may well represent us all.

If so, perhaps it also is worth hoping that, like Rep. Terry, we can experience an epiphany as a nation and change our selfish and hypocritical ways.

More to come . . .

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