Now, More Than Ever

If I had the opportunity to speak to Congress on the importance of trust, it might sound something like this –

The first time I became aware of political leadership it was 1961.

Our 7th grade homeroom teacher wheeled in a big television set so that the entire class could watch the inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

We all sat quietly watching as Senator Kennedy took the oath of office and then spoke the words that would inspire many others to follow a similar path of service – “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

Looking back on it, I realize how extraordinary that teacher was by spending so much time discussing the important role elected officials played in all of our lives.  It was not long after Kennedy’s inaugural that we were studying Abraham Lincoln, and once again, our attention was focused on solemn words –“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

In 1858, during an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate, Abraham Lincoln spoke the words that would prove prophetic for a great Civil War that would consume a deeply divided nation.

Today, we face a divide no less critical.  It’s a divide of trust between the American people and the individuals who were elected to represent them.  It’s a divide that grows larger every time there’s a report of another ethics scandal in Washington.

In April 2006, I commissioned a survey from Zogby International on Honesty and Trust in America.  More than 8,000 Americans responded.

When asked to grade the level of trustworthiness of select groups, Congress was given the lowest numbers at 76%.  The President scored 69% of “low” numbers.

When asked, “Today, which of the following individuals or groups do you believe demonstrate the best example of honesty and trust?” not a single respondent – out of 8,175 – cited “politicians and elected officials.”

What concerns me most is the fact that every time we hear of another political scandal our level of trust and confidence in our nation’s leaders and institutions declines.  Ethics is the infrastructure for the way things work. And that infrastructure is in great need of repair.

Before we can begin to change the economy, healthcare, the war on terrorism, and the environment there needs to be a meaningful and demonstrative change in how members of Congress work.

How can Congress raise the level of trust?  How can they regain the confidence of the American people?

Ethicist Michael Josephson reminds us that “Ethics is having the character and the courage to do the right thing even when it costs more than you want to pay.”

In 1982, when several poisonings had been linked to Tylenol capsules, Johnson & Johnson Chairman James Burke called for the removal of all forms of Tylenol from every store in the country.  Although Tylenol accounted for more than $100 million in annual revenue, Burke demonstrated through his ethical decision-making that the public’s safety was the company’s first priority.

“As I look back on Tylenol,” Burke told me in an interview, “I think that the only way we could have done what we did was to have all the institutions that were affected by the Tylenol poisonings believe in us… whether it was the head of the FBI, the FDA… or the people at the White House.  There was no lack of trust about Johnson & Johnson.  There was no thought that this was something that we were doing that was only in our own self-interest.”

Each of you was elected by a majority of individuals in your state because they believed in you – they trusted that you would represent their interests to the best of your ability without fear or favor.

Perhaps former Speaker of the House, Henry Clay said it best,“Government is a trust, and the officers of the government are trustees; and both the trust and the trustees are created for the benefit of the people.”

So, what’s the solution?  How can the American public, once again, trust its officers of the government?

It doesn’t require an act of Congress or an annual budget.  Itdoes require an awareness of and a personal commitment to a strong set of ethical values.

Page two of the House Ethics Manual reads, “These codes provide that Members, officers, and employees are to conduct themselves in a manner that will reflect creditably on the House, work earnestly and thoughtfully for their salary and that they may not seek to profit by virtue of their public office, allow themselves to be improperly influenced, or discriminate unfairly by the dispensing of special favors.”

These words define what the character of each member of Congress should be.

Be:  Honorable, Earnest, Thoughtful, and Worthy of Trust.

Don’t:  Allow yourself to be improperly influenced, hand out special favors, unfairly discriminate, or use your office for personal gain.

“…let us begin anew,” Kennedy advised us in his only inaugural address, “remembering … that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.”

There was another senator from the ’60s whose image of integrity was held as a great example by his contemporaries.  The inscription on the front of the Senate office building that bears his name reads as follows:

“This building is dedicated by his colleagues to the memory of Philip A. Hart with affection, respect, and esteem. A man of incorruptible integrity and personal courage strengthened by inner grace and outer gentleness, he elevated politics to a level of purity that will forever be an example to every elected official. He advanced the cause of human justice, promoted the welfare of the common man, and improved the quality of life. His humility and ethics earned him his place as the conscience of the Senate.”

But there’s another way to honor Senator Hart.  Live up to his example.  Become the change the American people expect.

The next time that you’re facing a difficult decision, one that would reflect on your honor and duty, ask yourselves:  what would Senator Hart do?  How would he respond?

Now more than ever, the American people need real leadership.

Now more than ever, the American people need real integrity.

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