As anyone who knows me might guess, my eight years in public office were not without controversy. Not because I sought to be controversial, nor because I engaged in corrupt activities, nor because I was just ignorant of the implications of the things I said and did. I simply took my role as a councilman very seriously, believing it imposed upon me a duty to speak out when I saw problems in our community or opportunities to make things better.
In other words, I opened my mouth a lot.
Given that tendency, it was inevitable that I would create enemies as well as friends. And I did.
One particular individual, an advocate for a cause that splashed across the pages of the local papers on and off for years, was upset when the courts threw out on technical grounds a referendum his group had pushed forward. In the press conference that followed upon that bad news for him, the advocate accused me of conspiring with lawyers for the other side to deprive the voters of their right to be heard.
The statement was false, plain and simple. And I believed the advocate knew it was false.
So when the dutiful reporter called me for comment on the advocate’s accusation, I said, “That’s a lie, and he’s a liar.”
Stupid. From the gut, but stupid.
The use of the words “lie” and “liar’ are said to be libel per se, meaning that if someone uses them in reference to another person, the court presumes those to be libelous statements. The burden of proof switches to the one who used those words. I would have had to prove that the statement really was a knowing falsehood (a lie) and that the person who uttered it hadn’t merely lied in this instance, but had a tendency or habit or character trait of lying (that is, was a liar).
Fortunately for me, he didn’t sue. My comment even earned me a certain positive notoriety; a political columnist quoted it and said that, in fact, it was something a lot of people had wanted someone to say for a long time.
Which brings me uncomfortably to Donald Trump.
One of the recurring things we hear supporters of Mr. Trump say is that he says things that they had long wished someone would say.
Exactly what is it they are saying needs to be said?
Some of it may be the particular populist policy statements that have become standard Trump fare. Promising to make America great again, to generate jobs, to not do what career politicians do . . . these statements resonate with many primary voters, and they have rewarded him with their support.
But there’s also the penchant for the extreme personal attack, often seemingly inspired by Mr. Trump’s emotional responses to events that have displeased him. Followers often cheer those too, but they raise serious concerns about Mr. Trump’s approach to public leadership.
Making emotionally charged statements about critics or opponents doesn’t contribute to our understanding or offer guidance for the path we should follow; it is only giving vent (sincerely or for some sort of gain) to emotion. While what we feel emotionally simply is what it is, expressing our emotions is a choice. The wise leader chooses appropriate expressions at appropriate times and to appropriate people. And the wise leader recognizes that his or her feelings are not necessarily reflections of the truth of a situation.
Suppose I am stuck behind an individual in a wheelchair or with a cane who, of necessity, is moving slowly through a narrow passageway I also want to travel. I might feel frustrated (especially if I’m in a hurry), but does that prove that the individual before me is worthless or their apparent disability a sham?
Suppose one of my younger children or grandchildren drops a glass of milk on the floor. I might feel irritated (especially if I’m going to have to clean up the mess), but does my irritation prove that the child is careless or wantonly destructive?
Or suppose I have been put in a very embarrassing light by a judge’s decision to release documents in a case being brought against one of my businesses. I might be really offended, but does that mean the judge’s motivation is suspect? The revelation might hurt my political fortunes, but does that mean the judge is biased against me?
In our system of separation of powers, every leader is going to have their policy initiatives slowed simply by the long and narrow path to adoption. Given the necessity of a bureaucracy, at every level of government, to implement legislative and executive direction, there will be times when the policy that emerges doesn’t match the leader’s hopes. And given the important role the rule of law plays in ensuring that raw power, whether of wealth, political backing, or personality, does not simply dictate the course of events, there will be times when judges will do things that frustrate elected leaders and private citizens alike.
Leadership, in this nation’s complex political environment, requires diplomacy, patience and an understanding of the legitimate part each system element plays in the dance of private interest and public good. It also requires courage, including the courage to say what really needs to be said: the truth.
But if we’ve been wishing for someone to say things that amount to little more than emotional venting or, worse, scapegoating, we’ve been wishing for the wrong thing. And if we are thrilled by someone who assaults another’s integrity for no other reason than because that someone isn’t getting his way, we, individually and collectively, have a serious problem.
And if, as things unfold, we choose to be led this way, we are choosing a dark path indeed.