Our constitutional crisis is also a moral one. The impeachment saga shows us deep-seated corruption. One side must be lying. That means that half of the political establishment is fundamentally flawed.
Either the Democrats are engaged in “demented hoaxes, crazy witch hunts and deranged partisan crusades,” as President Donald Trump said. Or the president has “betrayed the nation by abusing his high office to enlist a foreign power in corrupting democratic elections,” as Adam Schiff put it.
Something is rotten in America. We disagree about the source of the stench. But after this is all over, no one will be satisfied. Most will continue to believe that something stinks.
The accusation of corruption flows freely in both directions. The Trump camp accuses Joe Biden of nepotism. Biden’s son got a high-paying job in Ukraine, where the taint of corruption is especially pungent. But power and money infect the whole system. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner parlayed their connections to move from Manhattan to D.C.
Nepotism and cronyism infect everything. The Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, is married to a Trump cabinet member, Elaine Chao, the Secretary of Transportation. The senator declared in December, “I’m not an impartial juror.”
This admission reinforces what many Americans think about the legal system anyway: that it is rigged. The powerful get away with stuff and the powerless get stuffed away.
Or consider John Bolton. If he has information relevant to Trump’s impeachment, he should just speak up. If a kid knows something, teachers and parents encourage him to spill the beans. Law enforcement says, “if you see something, say something.” But that does not apply in Washington, where what you say depends upon personal and political advantage.
We hold our children to a higher standard than our leaders hold themselves. But shouldn’t it work the other way around? Shouldn’t there be a higher standard for those who are entrusted with power and authority?
During Bill Clinton’s impeachment, the late Sen. John McCain said that if a military officer were caught doing what Clinton did, that officer should resign. He explained, “I do not hold the president to the same standard that I hold military officers to. I hold him to a higher standard.” He continued, “Presidents are not ordinary citizens. They are extraordinary.”
McCain’s point echoes a proverb made famous by Spiderman: “with great power comes great responsibility.” This idea sounds naïve today. After Bill Clinton and Donald Trump it is difficult to believe that anyone lives according to a higher standard. Priests mess with kids. Sports heroes cheat. Politicians lie. And no one seems worthy of our respect.
That lesson can be liberating. If everyone is corrupt, then there is no reason to feel guilty or inferior. But the liberation of lowered standards is dangerous, if it gives us a license to sin. If our leaders lie and cheat, why can’t we?
The value of a moral life persists, of course, despite what the powerful do. We know that truth and integrity matter in family life, in school, and in professional life. And at the end of the day, you have to live with yourself. The powerful may not be worthy of our respect. But you should want to respect yourself.
To teach our children to live well, we ought to encourage them to do the opposite of what they see in Washington. To find moral models, we should look in another direction. Let’s celebrate the unsung people in the moderate middle of things. Nurses, teachers and all kinds of ordinary people do their jobs every day with honesty, integrity and compassion. We learn to be moral by watching grandmothers, coaches, scientists and neighbors – not by watching the political class.
Good people tell the truth. They strive to be impartial. They work hard. They care for their families and help their neighbors. Good people do not live according to a calculus of personal advantage.
Ordinary moral decency may not help you in politics. But it will help you live a life that you can be proud of. In the end it is important to hold yourself to a higher standard, even if the powerful live according to a lower one.