Yes, there are indeed honest, dedicated people in federal service. The tragedy is that a national crisis is required to make them visible in the raging storm of anti-government rhetoric and political extremism that covers the land.
Most of the time these honest people just do their jobs, executing the laws passed by Congress to the best of their ability. The smartest and most energetic of them, through hard work and time-in-grade, advance into higher, more influential positions. They believe deeply in their missions and resent and will resist efforts to curtail them.
They are the cypress trees in the much-maligned Washington, D.C., “swamp,” providing the root structure, shelter, food and oxygen for the other, equally necessary but transient half of democratic government: the political appointees. Our governing ecology, messy as it is, could not provide the public goods that are its purpose without that symbiosis.
Just as in nature, however, that balance sometimes gets out of whack, and when one of the partners grows too dominant, the whole ecosystem is endangered.
This is another one of those times.
The proximate cause of this crisis was the election of President Trump, a man ignorant of the workings of government and dismissive of the norms of acceptable behavior.
He has surrounded himself with people who reflect rather than enhance his shortcomings. And as he foolishly attempts to govern by reflex rather than reflection, discarding all regard for truth, those acolytes stumble and struggle, often in contradictory ways, to explain, excuse and compensate for his intemperance.
We’ve been at this threat level before in our history and, fortunately, some of those honest people have shown up in the right places at the right times and headed off catastrophe. They are career people who focus more on right and wrong than on right and left and are persuaded that self-governance requires no less.
After four months of Trump’s imperial reign, we are headed for a governing melt-down, even if we fortuitously avoid external catastrophes or foreign malfeasance.
Who among the current cast might step up? Fired FBI Director Jim Comey? Sally Yates, former acting attorney general? Government ethics office director Walter Schaub? An unknown 21st century Deep Throat? A conscience-stricken White House aide?
Or perhaps the return to healthy balance will begin with several Republican members of Congress deciding to value national welfare above political survival.
Or enough majority-party members realize that Trump’s vaunted “base” cannot be delivered against them in 2018’s primary elections because he cannot fulfill his unwise and undoable 2016 promises to them.
One-dimensional people such as Trump, and those he keeps close to him, project their own shallowness onto everyone they encounter. Thus when Yates dutifully went to the White House to warn that security adviser Michael Flynn was compromised by his lies about Russian connections, they read it as a political ploy and did nothing for 18 days while Flynn participated in sensitive business.
Likewise, when Comey contradicted under oath Trump’s claim of wiretapping by Barack Obama, they saw that as treachery rather than respect for truth. Even Comey’s unprecedented violations of protocol in the Hillary Clinton e-mail debacle were truth-based and not contrived, a reality incomprehensible to Trump and his people.
The list of the disaffected is long and growing.
Davis Merritt, a Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.