Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Have We No Sense of Dignity Anymore? Court Poets and Masters of Platitude Abound in Politics By Chris Ogolla

The following post is by Professor Chris Ogolla (Barry Law).

Famed Boston lawyer Joseph Nye Welch, is remembered for his immortal line to Senator Joseph McCarthy, during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. After Senator McCarthy charged that one of Welch's attorneys had ties to a Communist organization, Welch made the now famous statement, have you no sense of decency?[1] Perhaps we should be asking our politicians and other leaders the question, have you no sense of dignity? A little background will explain this.

Many years ago, I visited a developing country and attended one of its national holiday celebrations. Typically, such celebrations are held in a national stadium with thousands of citizens attending. Some are bused in from different parts of the country. On that day, there was a military parade, songs and dances by different groups, and yes, the long-winding, sycophantic speeches that served as a crowd warm up before the President or dear leader gave his equally long-winding, self effusive speech to the masses. Before the President spoke on that day, each cabinet member (referred to as “minister”) warmed up the crowd by praising the President, using such platitudes as “father of the nation” “dear leader”, “husband-of-all” and “man-of-the-people.”[2]

If you think this only happens in developing countries, think again. On June 12, 2017 an eerily similar scenario played out here in the U.S., when every cabinet member, with the exception of then Secretary of Defense James Mattis, offered similar platitudes to President Trump. “The greatest privilege of my life is to serve as vice president to the president who’s keeping his word to the American people,” intoned VP Mike Pence. “We thank you for the opportunity and the blessing to serve your agenda”, gushed then Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus. “They love you in Mississippi”, sang Agriculture Secretary Sony Perdue.[3] On and on they went around the table.

Was this the beginning of a trend? President Trump has referred to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a total disaster.[4] The President has attacked Sessions relentlessly, at one time mocking his Southern accent.[5] In fact an article in Politico noted that “seized by paroxysms of anger, Trump has intermittently pushed to fire his attorney general since March 2017, when Sessions announced his recusal from the Russia investigation. If Sessions’ recusal was his original sin, Trump has come to resent him for other reasons, griping to aides and lawmakers that the attorney general doesn’t have the Ivy League pedigree the president prefers, that he can’t stand his Southern accent and that Sessions isn’t a capable defender of the president on television — in part because he “talks like he has marbles in his mouth.”[6] Yet Sessions has steadfastly maintained his support for President Trump, even though the President endorsed his rival for the Alabama Senate Republican Primary.[7] I now ask Mr. Sessions, have you no sense of dignity, sir?

In his resignation letter to President Trump, former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt stated, “you are President because of God’s providence.” Pruitt also said “it is extremely difficult for me to cease serving you in this role first because I count it a blessing to be serving you in any capacity, but also because of transformative work that is occurring." Pruit used the word bless so many times![8]

In a National Public Radio interview on June 21, 2018, Kate Andersen Brower, author of “First in Line, Presidents, Vice Presidents and the Pursuit of Power” (Harper Collins 2018), noted that in cabinet meetings, Vice President Mike Pence often fawns over President Trump, almost embarrassingly so. In fact CNN has compiled videos of Mike Pence praising President Trump every 3 seconds in most of his speeches.[9] The number of Congressional Republicans who praise the President in these lofty terms are too numerous to include here. It is as if they have an audience of one, the President of the United States.

Which brings me to the central thesis of this commentary, have we no sense of dignity anymore? To survive in national politics, is it a prerequisite to be a court poet and master of platitude? Do the cabinet members and members of Congress need their jobs that bad, that they are willing to grovel and prostrate in front of the President?  A lot of cabinet members and members of Congress are millionaires and some of them billionaires, I presume; do they really need these government jobs? The trappings of power? Have they no sense of dignity?

But there is always a counter argument,  however utopian or dystopian it maybe. Perhaps it is not an issue of dignity, but loyalty to the President. One cannot discount the fact that these leaders respect President Trump and they praise him out of genuine love for him and his policies. Perhaps President Trump deserves respect for achieving such hallowed status among his supporters. If so, he has earned his “street cred” so to speak. Indeed the President never tires of reminding the American people of his unbridled “awesomeness” and how he has made America great again (MAGA). The MAGA slogan, has of course come to mean different things to different people. For example, Professor Jeffrey Omari, writes “For its supporters, MAGA indexes an effort to return to a time in American history when this country was “great” for some—particularly, propertied white men—but brutally exclusionary for others, most notably women and people of color.”[10]

But is there a danger of too much loyalty to the President? Justice Miller aptly observed in United States v. Lee, 106, U.S. 196, 208 (1882) that “[u]nder our system, the people, who are there called subjects, are the sovereign. Their rights, whether collective or individual, are not bound to give way to a sentiment of loyalty to the person of the monarch. The citizen here knows no person, however near to those in power or however powerful himself, to whom he need yield the rights which the law secures to him when it is well administered.” Although this case is about governmental immunity, it encapsulates the dangers of too much deference to the government, (read President).

Whereas total loyalty to the President by cabinet and congressional members may or may not pose such great dangers to our system of government, total loyalty to the President by federal judges would be a whole different ball game.[11] In a rare rebuke to the President, Chief Justice John Roberts defended a US District Judge, against the President’s criticisms that the judge ruled against his administration because he was an Obama judge. Said Justice Roberts, “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.” [12]

Chief justice Roberts’ statements affirms that there is dignity in the judicial branch. As for the other two branches, is there no sense of dignity?

[1]United States Senate. Historical Highlights. June 9, 1954. Have You No Sense of Decency?, https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Have_you_no_sense_of_decency.htm

[2] Lest the reader think this is unreal, on July 2018, President Trump said that he wants his people to listen to him like North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's people listen to him. Trump said, “Don’t let anyone think anything different. He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same." See Mac Greenwood, Trump: Kim's people sit up when he speaks, 'I want my people to do the same' thehill.com (06/15/2018), https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/392430-trump-i-want-americans-to-listen-to-me-like-north-koreans-listen-to

[3]Julie Hirschfield Davis, Trump’s Cabinet, With A Prod, Extols the Blessing of Serving Him. N.Y.Times (June 12, 2017).

[4]John Wagner, Trump says he nominated Sessions as attorney general even though he wasn’t ‘equipped’ for the job, Wash. Post (May 8, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-says-he-nominated-sessions-as-attorney-general-even-though-he-wasnt-equipped-for-the-job/2020/05/08/78f369be-912f-11ea-9e23-6914ee410a5f_story.html

[5]Ramsey Touchberry, Donald Trump Mocks Sessions’ Southern Accent in CPAC Speech “I’M Gonna Recuse Myself”  Newsweek.Com  (3/ 2/2019),  https://www.newsweek.com/donald-trump-jeff-sessions-cpac-speech-1349849

[6]Eliana Johnson & Elana Schor, Trump personally lobbying GOP senators to flip on Sessions, Politico.com (August 30, 2018), https://www.politico.com/story/2018/08/29/trump-sessions-firing-senators-white-house-803922

[7]James Arkin, Trump endorses Sessions’opponent in Alabama Senate Primary, Politico.com (March 10, 2020), https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/10/trump-endorses-sessions-opponent-in-alabama-senate-primary-125316

[8]Justin Wise, Pruitt in resignation letter to Trump: You are president because of God’s providence, thehill.com (July 5, 2018), https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/395676-pruitt-in-resignation-letter-to-trump-you-are-president-because-of

[9]Pence takes flattery to a new height, CNN.COM (Dec 21, 2017),  https://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2017/12/21/mike-pence-flatters-donald-trump-moos-pkg-erin.cnn

[10] See Jeffrey Omari, Seeing Red: A professor coexists with MAGA in the classroom. ABA Journal (July 3, 2019), https://www.abajournal.com/voice/article/coexisting-with-maga-in-the-classroom

[11]See Lee Epstein and Eric Posner, Supreme Court Justices Loyalty to the President, 45 J. L. Studies, 401 (2016) (finding that “justices more frequently vote for the government when the president who appointed them is in office than when subsequent presidents lead the government.”).

[12] Adam Liptak, Chief Justice Defends Judicial Independence After Trump Attacks ‘Obama Judge’ N.Y. Times (Nov 21, 2018),  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/21/us/politics/trump-chief-justice-roberts-rebuke.html


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Posted by: Edwin Aringo | Jun 18, 2020 6:59:39 AM

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