On the Public Trust and the Abuse of Power

In coming back from General Assembly, I not only came back with several new friends and contacts, several books, and a lot of paper, I also came back with a case of COVID. So, in my period of isolation I ended up binge watching–what else?–the January 6 hearings on the riot at the Capitol. Someone (I cannot remember where) said tongue-in-cheek that January 6 hearings are the surprise hit TV series of the summer. Actually, I would agree with that. They are compelling in terms of the testimony, evidence, and the narrative that they present. All citizens, regardless of their political persuasion, should watch the hearings so as to be informed firsthand, rather than outsourcing their opinions to Newsmax or MSNBC (either of which is effectively abdicating critical thinking altogether, but that is another story). At a later point, I may offer up commentary on the hearings, but I will probably wait until later in the summer or even the fall to do that.

Listening to the hearings, however, again brought to the fore how much government service is a public trust, and that reminded me of an essay that I wrote back in 1999 reflecting on the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. For me, writing essays are a way of organizing my thoughts and thinking through an issue. It is, admittedly, the antithesis of the Twitter universe, and I know full well that most people would rather read a 140-character tweet than a 15-page essay. Still, the essay format helps me think and I’m happy to share my essays with you, my dear readers, in the event that they may be useful to you as well. I’ll also post this essay on the Essays page of this blog for ease of reference. If this essay is not useful to you, well… you will always have Twitter.

During the Lewinsky scandal and the Clinton impeachment I was living overseas, so I watched that drama unfold from afar. A colleague of mine at the Embassy was a self-described liberal Democrat and I at the time was a self-described conservative Republican. Both of us, interestingly, were outraged at Clinton’s behavior for similar reasons: it was a betrayal of the public trust. We both decided to write private essays on the issue to process the situation; attached is mine. I processed the Clinton episode through the example of David’s sin with Bathsheba and the political consequences which flowed from that. Such abuses of the public trust foster an environment of cynicism which can be toxic for self-government. Rereading this after not having looked at it for years, most of what I wrote here has sadly held up well over time, not only about the Clinton scandal, but in terms of the deleterious effects our political culture would have on our political stability.

I have reformatted this from what I had earlier, done some proofreading and made a couple of minor updates, but by and large this is what I wrote in February 1999, after Clinton’s acquittal.

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